“Frankly, what I’m looking to do is entertain the band. We’re all grizzled vets of many gigs … Having to play the songs straight is a real prison for me.”
That’s what piano-player/songwriter Bruce Hornsby recently told blogcritics.org when asked about playing live, a practice he knows all to well. It’s an exercise he’s become lauded for, and it’s something the musician spends more time doing than anything else, including sitting alone in a dark studio. It’s also what paints his band’s latest offering, Bride of the Noisemakers, a double-disc compilation of some of the best performances his group compiled between 2007 and 2009 while on the road.
Hornsby, himself, has had a curious career. Why in God’s name “jazz” comes up whenever you import his CDs into iTunes is a disservice to both the genre and the musician. He’s made a career out of doing his best to not be lumped into one single category. Sure, there’s a little jazz. But yes, there’s also a little soul. A little bluegrass. Maybe even a little rhythm & blues.
All of those elements combine in full force on Bride of the Noisemakers to provide an end product that’s nothing short of impressive. Forget your preconceived notions, or the fact that there’s a good chance you could mistake one of his songs for something you heard on the Weather Channel. Hornsby is simply a good player. And fortunately for listeners and music fans alike, the band he has assembled around him is positively filled with even better masters of their own particular crafts.
That’s proven with how this collection begins. An inspiring take on “Cyclone” is a fine piece of pop music turned interesting with the way Hornsby’s Noisemakers allow the performance to climax at an uproar of glorious aptitude. Guitarist Doug Derryberry rips through an impressive solo as Sonny Emory’s drums provide a thunderous backdrop that fits perfectly behind the rest of the band’s performance.
And all of that is followed immediately by “Country Doctor” and “Funhouse”, two groovy numbers that promise to keep any listener on his or her toes. The former is a nearly-eight-minute romp that showcases Hornsby’s knack for pop vocals, while the latter swings its way through a dusty bar that seems to be painted in black and white. Both tracks exemplify the high level diversity and (pardon me) range that both the songwriter and his musician friends display consistently throughout all of both discs.
The only real issue with Bride of the Noisemakers is the one problem some may already have with Hornsby to begin with, and that’s his ability to mellow out and vaguely seem redundant at times. Lead single “Shadow Hand” isn’t a bad song by any stretch of the imagination, though its detachment from what are otherwise often smokin’ performances of more intricate songs seems somewhat out of place. Sure, it’s nice to hear the often beautiful sounds of a dulcimer. And yes, a break in the action is needed through any collection of live music. But the performance simply seems boring. It’s a move unnecessary, regardless of how diverse a musician Hornsby is.
Other disappointments come from the second disc’s final track, “Standing on the Moon/Halcyon Days”, a ballad medley that again opts against the fire and chops a lot of the other tracks here provide. It’s no secret that the singer has written his fair share of ballads, but when put up against the quirky, off-time “Tango King” or the dark and funky “Levitate”, the balladry just becomes an annoying bridge to other more interesting and inviting performances.
But those missteps are OK when considered amongst the set as a whole. All told, what separates Bruce Hornsby from most — if not all — of the other singers/songwriters/piano-players is the fact that he knows how to make things seem fresh. Hell, even his straight-as-an-arrow take on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” is entertaining in its own right, if for nothing else because the descent into it is somewhat unexpected. The dude can play, and he knows how to pick people who know how to play equally as well. Bride of the Noisemakers is, if nothing else, a great platform for those elements to shine.
“I don’t want there to be much sucking going on,” Hornsby said in the same article when asked what he was looking for when compiling the recordings that appear on this album. Well, no matter if you agree with the selection (“Talk of the Town” is great, but “Harbor Lights” would have been better), feel he’s a one-trick pony, or “just can’t stand listening to that piano guy play the same thing all the time” (as someone recently told me), at least one thing is for certain: There is no sucking going on here.