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Old Zen master Bruce: Hornsby at the Egg.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

You Should Hear Me Play Piano

By Erik Hage

Bruce Hornsby

The Egg, Nov. 18

That’s Bruce Hornsby for sure up there perched behind a grand piano: long, aquiline frame arced gracefully over the keys, gray head down in concentration, fingers feeling out imaginative runs and working up improbably experimental flights in this stark medium (one man, one piano). This is Steinway for Stoners, man: Alone, Hornsby finds spaces that the Grateful Dead, a band Hornsby has played live with countless times, have spent hours trying to achieve for (let’s face it) a quite forgiving audience.

It’s little wonder that patchouli wafts so frequently throughout the completely packed theater or that “Bob Weir and Ratdog” T-shirts abound. There are lots of gray beards here and lots of people from that bell-curve demographic that lived through the ’60s. Hornsby is their man, even calling himself an “old hippie” at one point.

Hornsby himself looks simply Zenned-out: extremely tall and lean, with baggy jeans, a flowy dark shirt, and the kind of corded, athletic neck that certain Californians who indulge in soy products and clean living possess.

There are lots appreciative, ecstatic howls of “Broooooooce” after particularly boggling, almost trigonometric flights across the keys. Hornsby easily chats up the audience like the aging, white-bread, Grammy-winning millionaire hipster that he is, and occasionally stands up for long, slow, graceful bows, nimble fingers locked devoutly at his waist.

This is Bruce Hornsby: Not solely the writer of chart-topping ’80s hits such as “The Way It Is” and (Don Henley’s) “End of the Innocence,” both of which are performed this night—but also an in-demand sideman and imaginative pianist, pulling improvisational urges, avant-gardisms and classical strains into his performance. As a songwriter, Hornsby tends toward the literal and trite. As a player, he breaks boundaries.

A lot of the performance seemed aimed at separating Hornsby from his ’80s hitmaker reputation. Ticket buyers were given a free box set that drew expansively from his career, well beyond the confines of The Way It Is.

Hornsby also seemed intent, both through his wild improvisation and between-song banter, on rectifying his reputation as a bland piano balladeer: He teased the audience by introducing “End of the Innocence” and then plowing into dizzyingly unmelodic and experimental key plunking; he drew a rough correlation between himself and Bobby McFerrin as significant artists appreciated only for major hits; he joked (in a vaguely cutting way) that only about eight people knew his more obscure tracks (“The Changes,” “The River Runs Low,” etc.), but that those were the people he was playing for.

Hornsby needn’t have worried, though: If he was trying to prove that he was more than the guy who sang “Mandolin Wind” and “The Way It Is” in the ’80s, he achieved that with this solo show. But it wasn’t his voice (unobtrusive, soulful enough, but nothing to write home about) or his songwriting (sepia-toned and romantic) that did it: It was his extraordinarily nimble and hypnotic piano work.

Soul of an Old Machine

Fear Factory

Revolution Hall, Nov. 16

Nothing I say matters to Fear Fac-tory. They told me so last Thursday night—me and the rest of the rowdy crowd gathered at Revolution Hall. In fact, they got the audience to chant it back at them with middle fingers raised. “Nothing you say matters to us!” This was after the motley crew of an audience (some clowns dressed in Marilyn Manson shirts, UFOs and bandannas, others in Hypocrisy shirts and black gloves, as if they were planning to do some gardening) had slightly turned on the band, demanding the return of their old guitarist, Dino, and shouting, “Play old-school shit!” It wasn’t clear exactly what who said didn’t matter to whom, especially since most of the crowd were almost certainly more interested in Sweden’s Hypocrisy and Long Island’s brutal innovators of death metal, Suffocation.

At that point in the show, it was almost imperative that lead singer Burton C. Bell find someone else to vocalize his feelings. He started the set raspy, chugging and churning his voice through the band’s first CD, Soul of a New Machine. While Bell probably was tearing his vocal cords, the vocals on SOANM require only belching, death-metal screams, something Bell was still capable of with half a tattered voice. Instead of introducing songs, Bell rigidly introduced albums, until finally reaching Obsolete (the band’s third album out of a six-album catalog). With each album progression, more singing was required from Bell, something his voice was simply not up to, a problem even the loads of effects layered on his microphone could not help. But besides Bell’s declining voice and croaking, there was the simple fact that Fear Factory songs get progressively worse as you travel through the band’s catalog toward their most recent material. Especially in Troy, where nü metal makes the hardcore/death metal toughs chafe, Fear Factory are advised to get the audience to forget about their, oh, let’s say, last three albums.

The band’s relevancy has declined since their early work. Their debut album came out at the height of death-metal kick, and the follow-up, Demanufacture, actually almost deserves to be part of the metal canon. Its cyber-Metallica riffage still influences the metal scene to this day. But then Fear Factory noticed nü metal, and they started trying very hard to sell out. They toured with sixth-rate nü-metal bands, as openers and as closers, until they finally broke up. They quickly re-formed, probably due to the success that straightforward metal acts like Lamb of God are enjoying. The band wrapped themselves in old-school imagery and proclaimed themselves to be a healthier, harder band. But that just wasn’t the case. The band’s new material, for some reason, has more nü-metal hooks than any of their previous albums.

Last Thursday night, instead of sixth-rate nü-metal bands, Fear Factory had some of the most credible death-metal acts around to open for them: the Decapitated, Hypocrisy and Suffocation. Ask any Troy kid who they had come to see and they would undoubtedly tell you, “SUFFOOOCATTTTION,” in a growly Cookie Monster voice. By the end of the set, Bell had given up wrapping his band in metal credibility tourniquets. At one point, a crowd member offered the wounded and heckled Bell a drink if he would join him at the bar. “I’m not going anywhere but here!” insisted Bell, determined to finish the set. “I could use a shot after this day,” he told the crowd. Then some of the band’s equipment caught fire. They kept playing, and the audience kept a steady line of shots coming to the stage. And Bell started to seem a lot less worried about who he was trying to impress.

—David King

Mando Cane

David Grisman

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Nov. 18

The bearded, 20-something long- hair sitting next to me waiting for the bluegrass band the Country Gentleman to begin a show at New York University in the early 1970s had his mandolin in his lap, and was picking furiously away. Intent on his tune, he gave two-word replies to my brief attempt at conversation: What was he playing? “June Apple.” What did his mandolin cost? “Eight- hundred dollars.” When the band came on, he jammed along with every song, apparently unconcerned if anyone deemed his unbilled accompaniment inappropriate.

Years later, I saw his photograph on an album cover. He was David Grisman, aka Dawg, a nickname Jerry Garcia had given him (that’s Grisman’s mandolin on the classic Grateful Dead album American Beauty). The singlemindedness he had shown at the concert had made him one of the world’s leading mandolinists; as well as mastering bluegrass, he’d also penned swing and Latin tunes, blending them all into a genre he eponymously named Dawg music. On Saturday night, Grisman and acoustic bandmates Enrique Coria on guitar, Jim Kerwin on string bass, Matt Earkle on flutes and pennywhistle, and George Marsh on percussion, came to the Troy Music Hall, and to a crowd of about 700, turned in two impeccably performed sets consisting mostly of Grisman’s stylistically diverse instrumentals.

His long hair and beard are white now, and his countenance reminiscent of Michelangelo’s paintings of God in the Sistine Chapel. Casually dressed in a black shirt and slacks, Grisman walked onstage and joked with the crowd, quipping, “I’ve always been there for me,” before opening with “Dawg’s Rag,” the first of several canine-titled tunes offered that night. It wasn’t a true ragtime composition, though, but rather an uptempo Latin piece during which the mandolin and guitar traded fleet four-bar riffs before the flute soloed energetically in the style of jazz icon Herbie Mann.

The band then switched grooves to funk for “Acousticity,” but the low volume of the bass in the mix (later remedied) left the music without the needed punch.

Particularly moving was Grisman’s arrangement of the poignant traditional Jewish folk tune “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace Be With You). He soaked the melody in pathos, and it was at moments like these that he was at his best.

At the end of the first set, mandolin great Frank Wakefield, wearing a red Western shirt and grinning like a court jester, came out to pick a few tunes with Grisman: an unidentified, classical-sounding theme and variations, and Wakefield’s “New Camptown Races,” which he sped up to a blistering tempo Grisman himself never attempted all night.

The second set was devoted to material from Grisman’s new record, Dawg’s Groove, and included compositions by his bandmates. “Ella McDonnell,” a multi-part composition by Kerwin, was the sole Celtic tune performed, while Gorger Marsh’s “Lucy’s Waltz,” written for a daughter who had died of cystic fibrosis, was so dark in mood it was positively sepulchral.

The title track of Grisman’s new CD began with finger snapping to a slinky bass line a la Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” but then the musical Ray-Bans came off and the tune took on shades of John Coltrane as Grisman riffed over a static harmony.

The band encored with “Shady Grove,” during which Grisman’s only singing of the evening attested to his wisdom in choosing to be an instrumentalist.

You might think David Grisman self-absorbed for naming so many of his tunes and even his style of music after himself. But that clearly didn’t matter to the crowd standing and cheering at the end of the show.

—Glenn Weiser


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