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Bruce Almighty

Singer-pianist continues to defy commercial expectations

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As he approaches 60, veteran singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby has developed a more esoteric approach to his roots rock and pop music. Rather than just play his hits, such as "Mandolin Rain" and "That's Just the Way It Is," he refashions them and incorporates jazz and classical harmonies and structures. Currently on a solo tour, Hornsby spoke via phone from his home studio about his upcoming show at the Kent Stage.

I think your show here in Kent is a solo performance. Do you bring your piano and/or keyboard?

Oh, no. I have to make friends every night with a new instrument. That's what sound check is for. They can be wildly different in their quality and the consistency of the action and the regulation. Some pianos are much stiffer. Some play like an organ. And with others, you feel like you need boxing gloves. The sound check allows me to practice a little more. What I do in the solo performance is very demanding and very difficult. I don't just sit there and play songs and sing. It's an ambitious attempt at deep musicianship. I often don't reach the level that I want, most of the time, sad to say. If someone wrote a book about me, they'd have to call it "Slow Learner."

You seem so well versed in a wide variety of musical genres. How'd you gain exposure to so much different music?

I think for two reasons. I've always been curious and interested in a broad range and wide gamut of styles and types of music. That's led me to explore a lot. Also, I'm a schooled musician, and I got my degree in music. That experience exposed to me to so much music I would not have been aware of otherwise, mostly in the modern classical area. That's what I'm interested in now, and I practice it quite a lot. I wish I had dealt with it in my twenties, but I was not nearly as interested. I was very intense about this all through college. But once I became a songwriter, I became more involved in that and less involved in the pursuit of playing the instrument. I lost a good ten of my best years because I was too involved with the songwriting. It's too bad.

You're famous for retooling your hits for the live show. Talk a bit about the reasons behind that.

I guess I'm looking for the definitive version. I'm also restless and intellectually curious about different styles of music. When I delve into a style, I tend to think about how it would influence an old song of mine. I think that as much adventure as I inflict on the audience, I think that I'm nice about it regarding strolls down memory lane. I try to play four or five of the hits, whether they were mine or somebody else's. For instance, "The End of the Innocence," which was a hit for Don Henley. Or something like "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt. I didn't write that, but I played on the record. I sort of mold the music in my own graven image and change the chords a lot.

Is it true you don't use a set list now when you perform?

I take requests from the audience and that leads me to some enjoyable places that I wouldn't think of otherwise. I'm amazed at the deep level of interest that some of my fans have. They will request some songs that have never been recorded. They'll hear a new song on a bootleg and request that, and that's fun. They'll request songs from our play SCKBSTD that have never been recorded. I try to placate that person more than the person who's not really a fan, but just likes a few songs.

Or the person yelling out for "Free Bird."

That's so tired. I don't even acknowledge it. For awhile, I would get a little snarky in my old age and have a Keith Jarrett moment. I would say, "What's funny about that? It's just old and done and tired. Why would you say that and out yourself as someone who is so uncreative. Why do you want everyone to know that?" Now, I just try to ignore it and be nice.

I think perhaps the least likely song to ever appear in your repertoire was Rick James's "Super Freak." What made you want to cover that tune?

That comes from the bluegrass record I made with Ricky Skaggs. This old friend of mine named Mike Duke used to play keyboards and sing with Delbert McClinton. He wrote a couple of hits for Huey Lewis, old soul/beach music songs. He's a great singer, a great musician and a great cook actually. One day he was walking around singing, "she's a very kinky girl/the kind you don't bring home to mother." I asked him what he was singing, and he told me it was the bluegrass "Super Freak." I totally got the idea from him. I stole it from Duke and I have acknowledged that many times. When it came time to do the record with Ricky, I thought it was my job, as it often is, to keep the proceedings light and a little goofy, so I ran it up the flagpole. Ricky and the guys in Kentucky Thunder thought it was enough of a scream to try it. We did it and there you have it. Somebody was screaming out for it the other night, but I don't do it often. I just did a few lines, because it's a relief from the Schoenberg, Elliott Carter and Charles Ives that I'm inflicting on them.

I know you play a lot of jam band festivals. Have you ever shown up at one to find it was completely disorganized and just a mess?

I played a couple of the b-team circuit ones and they've been a little less together. One good thing about being an old buzzard is that it doesn't throw me. I'm used to rolling with punches because I've rolled with so many punches for so long. I've had shows where you couldn't hear a thing. Chords were unplugged and equipment wasn't working. You get to the point where you're not thrown by it. Generally, the festivals are run really well. Bonnaroo is great. The High Sierra Festival. There are so many great ones. The solo concert is very different from all that. It's certainly about playing and improvisation, but it's rooted in basic American forms and traditional music. There's New Orleans piano blues, the hymnals, old stride piano. It's an odd combo of roots forms with a little modern harmonic content. That's my lonely road that I trod.

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