Three-time Grammy Award-winner Bruce Hornsby will open the 2017 Sedona International Film Festival with a performance with is band — The Noisemakers — on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Sedona Performing Arts Center.
Hornsby’s work displays a creative iconoclasm that’s been a constant in the artist’s three-decade recording career. His commercial stock soared early on, when “The Way It Is” — the title track of his 1986 debut album — became one of the most popular songs on American radio.
Hornsby has built one of the most diverse, collaborative and adventurous careers in contemporary music. Drawing from a vast wellspring of American musical traditions, the singer/pianist/composer/bandleader has created a large and accomplished body of work and employed a vast array of stylistic approaches. Throughout this period, Hornsby has maintained the integrity, virtuosity and artistic curiosity that have been hallmarks of his work from the start.
Despite his early mainstream successes, Hornsby has pursued a more personal, idiosyncratic musical path, focusing on projects that sparked his creative interest, including collaborations with the Grateful Dead, Spike Lee, Ricky Skaggs, Don Henley, Ornette Coleman, Bob Dylan, Bela Fleck, Bonnie Raitt, Pat Metheny, and Robbie Robertson. Hornsby’s performance will offer a glimpse of a restless spirit who continues to push forward into exciting new musical terrain.
Three decades after Bruce Hornsby established his global name as the creator of pop hits that defined "the sound of grace on the radio," as a Rolling Stone reviewer once wrote, such projects continue and are consistent with his lifelong pursuit of musical transcendence.
BRUCE HORNSBY AND THE NOISEMAKERS
In the mid-1990s, a decade after he showed the world and its airwaves that his soaring musical language included both Steinways and accordions, Bruce Hornsby took his family to the Annual Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, a town in the Appalachian southwest of Hornsby’s native Virginia that has hosted the event since 1935.
In the Galax parking lot full of campers and RVs, which he calls the site of “one big bluegrass pickin’ party,” Hornsby’s wife emerged unconverted but his preschoolers went happily wide-eyed and Hornsby himself bought a dulcimer.
A couple of decades later, that Galax purchase has yielded Rehab Reunion, Hornsby’s piano-free new album that features guest appearances by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as well as the magisterial soul-gospel singer Mavis Staples. Recorded in Williamsburg with The Noisemakers, produced by Hornsby, it’s a trenchantly sung ten-song collection that spins into intricate dramatic scenes mundane things like skipping town (“M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.”), calculating gratuities at restaurants (“Tipping”), and airport security as sensual experience (“TSA Man”). But it also captures rarer stretches of life that seek or attain transcendence.
“Some may ask, ‘Why?’, ‘What in the world?’” Hornsby says of Rehab Reunion. “What I’m doing here is not about virtuosity: It’s about a song and a singer. I’m really terrible at the dulcimer but that doesn’t stop me. It’s my punk moment.”
Rehab Reunion hardly came out of the blue, though. “My first records had David Mansfield on fiddle and mandolin,” Hornsby says, “and I was playing hammer dulcimer, where thin wooden mallets are used, and accordion of course. “ Earlier Hornsby songs like “Shadow Hand” (from 1998’s Spirit Trail),“Mirror on the Wall” (from 2004’s Halcyon Days), and “Prairie Dog Town” (from 2009’s Levitate) also featured or relied entirely on the dulcimer.
For Hornsby, the dulcimer provided a counterpoint to the work he’d been doing on his principal instrument, where he is one of the most accomplished players in international music. The dulcimer proved to be a kind of reverse cure.
“In my piano writing,” Hornsby says, “I’ve gotten really bored with triads. I’ve been that way for years. My piano writing has become more strange, chromatic and dissonant. But on the dulcimer I love the limited palette that you’re allowed to paint with. It’s just the white notes – it’s not even like a guitar, where the whole chromatic scale is on the fret board. On the dulcimer it’s just an old-timey instrument. It’s just scalar. So it limits your range and it makes you write real simple songs. I kept writing more and more. And all of a sudden the record needed to be made. “
Songs in the collection such as the two-chord title track, which celebrates the swinging bravado of the great Nashville honky-tonk singer John Anderson and the dulcimer/blues guitar “Hey Kafka,” which Hornsby describes as “Kafka-meets-Cream,” are bookended by “Over the Rise,” an emotional epic that features falsetto harmony singing from Bon Iver’s Vernon, and “Celestial Railroad,” on which Hornsby sings rousing gospel with Staples.
“I’ve tried to find my own way with this,” Hornsby says. “I know all the language of the ninths and the elevenths and so forth. But I tend to be moved to my core more by the most elemental gutbucket old-time music, whether it’s Rev. Gary Davis or Bill Monroe or shape-note singing, sacred heart music, the Shaker hymns. That stuff gets under my skin probably on a deeper level than some of the more advanced music I like. It’s all about what gives me chills.”
It explains why Rehab Reunion departs from most singer-songwriter sounds. “Most singer-songwriters,” Hornsby says, “are guitar players fond of big ringing chords. With the dulcimer it’s all just root/fifth/root. I’m playing thirds on some melody lines but it’s way more modal, way more simple, earthy and elemental. It makes the sound less like singer-songwriter sound. It’s pretty because it’s acoustic music, but the primitive nature of the genesis of the music gives things a different feeling.”
It’s a tremendous vibe from the uncomplicated yet resourceful heart of one, as Hornsby tends to refer to it, little dulcimer.
Tickets are priced at $65 or $55 for this special concert event. VIP tickets for the best seats at SPAC and a backstage meet-and-greet with Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers before the concert are $100. Only 50 VIP tickets will be sold.