The Dead at 50: Bruce Hornsby Appreciation


When the living members of the Grateful Dead announced their upcoming three night “Fare Thee Well” fourth of July event at Soldier Field, I was equally as excited to read Bruce Hornsby’s name as I was Trey Anastasio’s alongside the “core four” of Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart. I’m excited for Bruuuuuce to bring his melodic knack, jazz chops, virtuosic voice and sense of adventure to Soldier Field this summer as the Dead come alive one last time.

In my book, Bruce Hornsby is one of the piano greats of the last 50 years. I’m surprised how much of my generation is unfamiliar with his work. My group of friends has pretty diverse, well-informed, & hip musical tastes and I can’t think of a single person with whom I’ve discussed his music at length.

I bring his name up, X friend will say they know of him but haven’t checked his stuff out, I’ll sing his praises, they’ll nod and say ‘Oh, I’ll have to check his stuff out,”and then X friend and I will either a). never have a conversation about Bill Hornsby again or  b). have the exact same conversation we first had about him again in a year or two, because X friend doesn’t actually check out Bruce Hornsby. This literally has happened to me with 5 or 6 friends over the years, no kidding;)

His 2000 live album “Here Comes the Noisemakers”, is a great entry point if you haven’t given his music an extensive listen. Recorded in the late 1990s with his tight yet adventurous Noisemakers band, the set highlights his songwriting and improvisational skills equally. Plus, you just get the sense that it would be fucking fun to be in his band. Wild and beautiful music, I tell you. Here’s a few choice cuts to wet your whistle:

Choice Cuts:

#1. Piano Jam -> The Great Divide

#3. Red Plains

#14. The Valley Road

#18.Mandolin Rain->Black Muddy River

Outside of the 1991 RFK Stadium show featured on the second installment of the View from the Vault series, I was not super familiar with Bruce Hornsby’s stint with the Grateful Dead until recently. It’s been fun becoming more familiar with that era, both musically and historically, over the weekend. Musically, 3/31/91 (featuring an wonderfully exploratory “Eyes of the World”)6/7/91 “Scarlet Begonias” , 9/8/91 Madison Square Garden Set II, and a handful of versions of “Standing on the Moon” all stand out. Historically, Bret Heisler’s 2000 interview with Hornsby for is a must-read. Some particularly interesting excerpts:

On joining the Grateful Dead in 1991 and his musical relationship with Jerry Garcia:

I guess after you’ve been doing something for 20 plus years, you have to work to stay interested. As far as Garcia goes, he and I had a strong musical connection from the start and we played off each other quite a bit once I joined the band sort of part-time… I would definitely try to push him. That was sort of my self-imposed job description. I wanted to jack him up because I thought that sometimes he would just stick his head down and just kind of lose or ignore everybody. Sometimes he would just get deep into his own thing and not really be a part of the band. I just wanted to jack him up a bit. It was just one of my aims. (laughs)

On the structure of Grateful Dead shows:

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the Grateful Dead was this incredibly loose structured thing – it wasn’t. It’s been given a lot of credit – or sometimes blame – for being this improvisatory, totally spontaneous thing, and it really wasn’t – certainly by the time that I got into the group. It was very structured – too structured for me frankly. It was way more structured than my band. I know that may surprise people, but it’s absolutely true. If you listen to the songs and divorce yourself from this notion that they were always changing things you’ll see that things weren’t that different.

(Interviewer): A lot of songs were played in the same positions in the sets and so forth.

(Hornsby): Not just that, but also that the songs were played virtually the same way every night – because that’s a fact – but even down to where they would play the songs. It was so structured. They were already entrenched in tradition by the time that I got there. I would say things like, “Let’s start with the drums!” and they would say, “Oh no – we can’t do that!” I would say, “Let’s open with “Wharf Rat” tonight” and they would say, “Oh no man, that always comes after the drums.” (laughter) I’d say, “Let’s play China>Rider to open the show” and they’d say, “Oh no that always comes in the first part of the second set.” (laughter) It was just unbelievable. So this myth about the spontaneity of it was just that, a myth. That was a little disappointing to me because I was never into that. I wanted it to be continually fresh.

I’m so interested to see how the musical relationship between Trey & Hornsby takes hold & develops for these “Fare Thee Well” shows. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Furthur shows I saw around the Bay the last few years, the pace lagged for stretches at a time. Rather than making their own imprint on the songs, Kadlecik & Chimenti seemed more inclined to fit themselves into the sound of the band. I guess that may be expected when you’re invited to be a junior member of a band that has a nearly 50-year old legacy. In this new configuration, I hope Trey & Hornsby push each other to keep it brisk and fresh by breathing some nimbleness into the band while encouraging lyrical interplay all the while. In particular, I see powerful opportunities for the duo to make their imprint on songs such as “Scarlet Begonias”, “China Cat Sunflower”, “Wharf Rat”, and “Eyes of the World” as the Dead take that walk in the woods for one last time.

However it may take its form,

can’t wait to see the magic in store,

in early July on Lake Michigan shore!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s