Zen master Bruce: Hornsby at the Egg.
Should Hear Me Play Piano
By Erik Hage
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
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.
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.
of an Old Machine
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,
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.
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
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.