A look back at Spirit Trail – first reviews

Boston Globe – Friday, August 14, 1998

“Bruce Hornsby gets elemental with ‘Spirit'”

Elemental. It’s not a word always associated with Bruce Hornsby, whose sometimes ornate, classical-jazz influenced piano style has earned him sessions with Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter. But Hornsby can also cut back to a funkier, stripped-down approach, as he does with the post-Grateful Dead band the Other Ones and on an upcoming double CD, “Spirit Trail,” which sports his most accessible music in years.

“It’s more elemental groove-wise,” Hornsby says of the new double CD, which comes out Oct. 19. “It’s not as harmonically complex. It’s easy for me to write a lot of weird chords, but I wanted to do something more elemental this time.

“The new record is more of an R & B, gospel, and bluesy record,” he says. “It’s a more Southern record. It was just what I was drawn to at this point.”

Hornsby will preview a bunch of the new songs this Sunday night at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset. He’s also added a guitarist (Doug Derryberry from the D.C. area) for the first time in years. “He adds a lot of texture,” says Hornsby. “He plays electric 12-string and Rickenbacker and acoustic 12-string. Some of the new songs have mostly guitar. Again, it was just time for a change.” (The guitarist on the record is John Leventhal, known for his work with Shawn Colvin.)

The new album also has the most Dead-like music that Hornsby has done as a solo act. He even samples Jerry Garcia’s “China Cat Sunflower” on a new tune called “Sunflower Cat.” The Dead connection makes sense, because Hornsby wrote some of the songs while on tour with the Furthur Festival last year.

“It was hatched, gradually, on the bus,” he says. “There are grooves and loops and beats. I was on the bus writing on a Casio [keyboard].”

Among the new, Southern-based songs, says Hornsby (who lives in Virginia), are “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” and “Preacher in the Ring, Part I and II,” which is about a “snake-handling congregation in Appalachia.” The song describes a “man in a reptilian suit with a rattling sound.” The concept stems from the Book of Mark in the Bible, which has a line that “they will handle serpents.” Says Hornsby: “Some people took it seriously and based a religion around it.”

Hornsby’s touring band also has a new drummer, Michael Baker, who replaces longtime accompanist John Molo (who worked with the Other Ones this summer). Baker has played with Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, and Branford Marsalis, but only has done a couple of gigs with Hornsby, partly because his wife recently gave birth to a baby and he has needed to stay home.

“The Grateful Dead used to be the band that never rehearsed, but now my band is not rehearsed,” Hornsby notes with a chuckle. “But I’m not going to be the [guy] who says to him come on and rehearse when his wife is having a baby. But he’s a very good drummer. It’s OK.”

Hornsby had played with Molo for 21 years, but both agreed to take a break for a while. And Hornsby still praises Molo, calling him one of the keys to the success of this summer’s Other Ones. “Molo helped a lot,” Hornsby says. “The band had more power with Molo in it. The Dead were lighter.”

The Other Ones, which included Dead alumni Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Phil Lesh, exceeded many fans’ predictions this summer and far exceeded Hornsby’s. “Everything came together and we had so much fun,” he says. “I hope we do it again.”

Hornsby is now sifting through nine CDs of concert recordings from this summer in order to help fashion a live CD by the Other Ones, to be released next year. “We’ll work on it in San Francisco this September,” he says.

First, though, is Cohasset this Sunday.


The Boston Herald – Tuesday, August 18, 1998

“Hornsby adopts new attitude”

Auxiliary memberships in the Grateful Dead, and subsequently this summer’s “Other Ones” tour, have had a tremendous impact on Bruce Hornsby.

Not only is the lanky Virginian recording a jam-heavy double album, “Spirit Trail,” for fall release and now performing Dead-identified songs, such as his expansive and bright take on “I Know You Rider” at the start of his show Sunday night at the South Shore Music Circus – but his whole musical attitude has been affected.

Since Hornsby’s Dead trip began, after Brent Mydland’s death in 1990, it’s almost as if the legendary noodlers gave him permission to indulge his incredible piano chops in the avenues of jazz, country and r & b and that he needn’t just write tight little pop songs, sumptuous as they may be.

So instead of working toward mainstream success, Hornsby has become more and more experimental since his hit-laden first album, 1986’s “The Way it Is.”

Sunday night’s 2 1/2-hour performance, marked by lengthy, loose and tasteful jam sessions, proved that this is indeed a good evolution as bits of gospel, zydeco, avant jazz, blues and soul crept into Hornsby’s repertoire.

Backed by a mostly new and incredibly deft seven-piece band, Hornsby grinned throughout the night. Whether taking requests from the enthusiastic sold-out crowd of 2,300, inviting his brother and co-songwriter John onstage for “Western Skyline,” talking about the “Other Ones” tour or pointing to each performer to take fanciful solos, Hornsby and his band appeared thrilled to be playing.

Particularly moving was Hornsby’s reclamation project of “The End of the Innocence,” which he wrote with Don Henley. He took Henley’s cynical revulsion with President Ronald Reagan and turned it, via more gentle sing-song phrasing and melancholic tonality, into bittersweet nostalgia for better times.

During a jaunty, New Orleans-style rendition of “The Women Are Smarter,” Hornsby urged women in the crowd to rush the stage, proving that if we’re not actually smarter, we have better hearing as one dazed man joined the horde of about 40 women in the rush to the stage.

The night’s peak came with an incredibly lengthy reworking of “Across the River” that took journeys through Hornsby’s jazzy, eruptive solos, sizzling sax and trumpet lines, impossibly funky rhythms and a surprise reggae passage.

Though you might not have suspected it at the beginning of his career, there is now never a dull moment with Bruce Hornsby.

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