I grew up in Durham listening to Bruce Hornsby. But not the heady Hornsby that you might hear blasting out of a Volkswagen on lot. I grew up listening to “Mandolin Rain” and the like on VH1, my parents’ entertainment of choice in the 80’s. I always found his voice soothing, but it was years before I ever realized his incomparable pedigree in the field of music.
As I slowly got into the jam band scene during my high school years in the 90’s, I became more and more aware of the impact that Bruce had on some of my very favorite musicians and songs. I finally got to witness his mastery live at LOCKN Festival in 2014. As blown away as I was, I couldn’t fully appreciate Bruce’s skill until I caught him this month at the Carolina Theatre and was close enough to see his magic hands at work and catch all the laughs and jokes he shares with the band onstage.
Watching Bruce jam with the Noisemakers is like getting to watch your friend’s cool band practicing in the garage, jamming and laughing and trying out new combinations. That is if you have world-renowned musicians for friends. (And if so, please invite me over…)
A sure sign of the quality of this tour was the audience itself. Even in their oxford shirts and good shoes, old Grateful Dead tour veterans just can’t hide their true identities. One of my very favorite crowd experiences at any show is watching folks slowly relax and get into the music and forget to worry if anyone’s watching. This crowd was no exception and I loved watching so many Triangle professionals return to what’s clearly their true passion. It’s not just SAS programming and NCAA basketball that gets us excited around here.
Another clear indication that you’re in for some top shelf jamming? When Bruce announces that there’s no set list. He waves a big stack of requests and the night is also peppered with lots of shout-outs from the audience, many of which he manages to incorporate into the show or at least laugh about.
The first piece that had me sitting up and taking notes was “The Way It Is” with the most beautiful classical piano solo leading into it. The kind of lead in that reminds you of the hours of traditional piano practice a young Bruce must have endured. This haunting beginning had me wondering why every version of this song doesn’t include such an intro.
After Bruce has sufficiently reminded of us his pianist prowess, he hops up on the dulcimer while two of his bandmates grab the washboard and mandolin for a rendition of “Border Town”. Again, my VH1 pop music childhood is reinterpreted for me in such a clever way that I’m wishing I could start over, appreciating all this talent from a younger age.
Oh, and that’s not all. Bruce casually picks up the squeezebox to perform “Big Stick”, his Cajun-esque melody written for the Tin Cup movie. It’s so different from his other compositions and is another reminder of how well rounded this gentleman is.
Bruce had an old friend and former guest guitarist for the Grateful Dead step out and perform “Cumberland Blues” with him. This is pretty much the point at which the sitting audience became a standing and dancing audience. I’d be happy to see his “Bruce Sings Jerry” set at any time after this rocking rendition.
The final highlight of the evening for me was “Rainbow Cadillac”. I think I was well in my 20’s before I realized that this was a Hornsby song. To me, the tune encompasses everything great about Bruce. It’s fun and laid back and jammy and a song that anyone can tap their toes to and any musician can put their spin on. And those are the same reasons that Grade A artists around the world continue to collaborate with Bruce, decades into his career. And the same reasons that will keep me coming back for more for years to come.