OnMilwaukee.com – Bruce Hornsby Feature

Bruce Hornsby talks coming to Summerfest, collaborating with artists

By Joshua Miller
Published July 1, 2016 at 5:06 p.m.

Grammy-winning singer/songwriter and musician Bruce Hornsby has never been one to stay in one place too long. Instead, he’s been tenacious at exploring new and exciting musical ventures and taking musical risks.

“I’m a lifelong student, always looking for new inspiration and always looking to improve what I do and push it to new areas and new heights,” said Hornsby during a recent interview. “So my career probably has more resonance now than ever.”

“I work with Spike Lee scoring films; I have an orchestral project in the works with the great Michael Tilson Thomas, writing a musical called “SCKBSTD,” and on and on. The phone has always rung for thirty years now, and that’s a very fortunate and beautiful thing.”

His hunger for musical discovery has never waned, as evidenced by his new album with the Noisemakers called “Rehab Reunion.” The album finds Hornsby relying heavily on dulcimer rather than his trademark piano.

“There was no thought about changing things up; I just started writing more on the dulcimer and really liked what was coming out,” he said. “The instrument’s limitations and my limitations as a player force me to write simple music, and that’s never a bad thing.”

(PHOTO: Kat Fisher)

Throughout his more than three decades in the music industry, Hornsby has enjoyed a very successful career as a solo musician, band leader/member and collaborator. Many of these ventures have given Hornsby a chance to wade into a wide spectrum of music styles, including jazz, bluegrass, folk, rock and blues. His biggest hit, “The Way It Is,” which was released thirty years ago on his debut album, still resonates today.

“I’ve always been interested in many different styles of music, even in college when I would buy an Ornette Coleman record, a Joni Mitchell record and an Earl Scruggs Revue record, and listen to them all equally … well, maybe I listened to the Joni record the most,” he said.

“Jazz music, bluegrass music and my own music have one thing in common: They’ve all been about virtuosity on the instrument. This record is really not about virtuosity; it’s about songwriting and creating a certain style within the constraints of an old-time traditional instrument.”

Of course, every lengthy journey comes with its share of bumps and bruises. Hornsby fondly recalls playing the Marcus Amphitheater in the late ’80s and early ’90s when he and his band were experiencing a surge of popularity on the radio. During one such concert, his excitement got the better of him.

“I jumped off the piano wearing my accordion and busted up my lower back,” he said. “And I ended up in the tub afterward trying to get some relief!”

While he’s not jumping around so wildly these days, Hornsby is ecstatic to headline Summerfest’s Uline Warehouse stage at 10 p.m. on Sunday, July 3 with the Noisemakers and also make some surprise appearances throughout the day (for what it’s worth, he sat-in with The Roots on “The Tonight Show” recently, and they’re performing that same night).

“I’m looking forward to being part of the great scene that I witnessed watching videos of last year’s festival,” he said, “and looking forward to my band’s set and a few sit-in situations that have been requested and discussed.”

(PHOTO: Michael Martin)

Hornsby has been very fond of collaborating with artists throughout his career, ranging from Mavis Staples (“Mavis and I just had a great time recording – a lot of laughs and joy in the room. What a beautiful spirit she has!”) and many, many more. Most notably, from 1988 to 1995, he performed as a guest musician with the Grateful Dead.

“What has always been most special about the Grateful Dead is their amazing body of songs and their approach to playing those songs,” he noted.

Last year, he reunited with surviving members of the Dead to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary as part of the “Fare Thee Well” concerts in Chicago and Santa Clara.

“The memories that I will retain from the ‘Fare Thee Well’ concerts involve the amazing crowd and their ebullient, boisterous response to certain times when the band would really be ‘rockin’ the house’ – an incredible sight to behold from the stage, from the piano chair,” he said. “Also I really enjoyed the vocal rehearsals we had during the first week of rehearsals in Marin, just Bob, Phil, Trey, Jeff and me. That was special, at least for me.”

Recently, he collaborated with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on two separate occasions. The first was when he joined forces with Vernon’s pre-Bon Iver band DeYarmond Edison for a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River.” The song is a part of the massive Grateful Dead tribute compilation “Day of the Dead,” which was put together by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National and features many popular indie acts playing today.

“Justin picked ‘Black Muddy River,’ I think, because he always liked the version of it on our first live record ‘Here Come the Noisemakers,'” he said. “We recorded at Justin’s studio, and it was a very easy, natural fit.”

Vernon returned the favor when Hornsby asked him to sing on “Over the Rise,” a single off of “Rehab Reunion.”

“I heard his great falsetto sound – that I knew from his records – in my head, and when he sent his track back to me, it sounded just like I thought it would,” says Hornsby. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

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