Bruce Hornsby’s new album opens with a boisterous bit of fiddle-inflected folk-rock called “The Black Rats of London.” The song’s subject matter is the little known role played by rodents, bugs and microbes in shaping some of our nation’s most important historical events.
“I wrote that out of a National Geographic article that I was reading about Jamestown,” he told me in a recent telephone conversation. “This was quite a revelation to me about how the redcoats got sick in Yorktown, and it helped the Americans, the bluecoats, defeat them. It’s historical fact. People don’t realize that we have some odd things to thank for American successes.”
Levitate, the new disc, is being called a departure from Hornsby’s previous work. But anyone who has followed his output since he won the Best New Artist Grammy for his 1986 debut, The Way It Is, knows that every new release since then has gone in one surprising direction after another.
“I’m not one to want to repeat myself,” he explained. “As the years go by it gets more difficult. The page that was once fairly blank is pretty filled in all these years later. It is more difficult but hence more rewarding when you actually find something that resonates. But you end up going much farther afield in your lyric/subject matter. So now I’m writing about bacterial strains!”
Several of the songs on the CD’s 12-track setlist come from a musical stage play that Bruce has been putting together with childhood friend Chip DeMatteo and famed Broadway director Kathleen Marshall. They’re calling it SCKBSTD, and glimpses of its plot can be heard in “Paperboy.”
“That’s totally out of the play,” he replied when I asked about the unusual lyrics. “This song is sung by a kid, the local paperboy, who is fantasizing all these gruesome fantasies in his head. This play is about some unknown figure appearing in the area, being a little mysterious and creepy, and people becoming paranoid. When that happens, the rumor mill and people’s imaginations run wild. So that sets the scene for this song.
“It’s long, this crazy Broadway process. We had one reading in November of last year; then we just had another reading at the end of June. Kathleen is able to get great Broadway actors to perform at these readings for us. I still think we don’t have a great ending and we need a couple of more songs. The second reading was way better than it was in November, so that was good; at least we didn’t go backwards!
“I don’t have huge expectations but I like where it’s led me as a songwriter. For instance, the song ‘Here We Are Again’ is a pivotal song in the musical. It’s a love song utilizing physics concepts and physics language; it’s one that I am most proud of, it’s one of my band’s favorite songs on the record. It’s set with this guy fantasizing about his dearly departed wife, a time travel scenario.”
Levitate also includes a song cowritten with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (“Cyclone”), and “Space is the Place” features an Eric Clapton guitar solo. But the album is dedicated to Bruce’s nephew, R. S. Hornsby, who died in an auto accident in January. He was a talented young guitarist who frequently performed with his uncle’s band, always adding an exciting dimension to the music. He is featured on the disc’s lengthiest track, “Continents Drift”:
“R. S. really had that gift; he was a musical, soulful player and person. This solo, which is the longest solo on the record, serves as a beautiful last testament for R. S. I love that it’s on there. He went home after the session and told his mom that he was so proud of it, that it was the ‘best recorded version of what I do.’”
Levitate marks Bruce Hornsby’s return to the pop and rock side of the musical ledger after two successful outings in other musical fields: bluegrass with Ricky Skaggs and jazz with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnnette. How did those experiences affect him?
“They impacted the approach to the record in a very clear way,” he responded. “On this record there are no piano solos. After the bluegrass record and the jazz record, which were both about lots of solo space, I thought I’ve done this enough, let this one be about the songs. It’s the least pianistic, the least about virtuosity of any record I’ve made. I’ve been playing the piano a lot—I really felt the need to not do it.”
This is one of those albums that gets better with each new listen. Songs like “The Low Country” (filled with lots of local regional references) and “Prairie Dog Town” (with Bruce on dulcimer) are lyrically entertaining and musically catchy. “Simple Prayer” bounces along with hilarious glimpses at the silly things that people pray for; “Here We Are Again” is beautiful and intense. The recording is credited to Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers, his longtime live band, and it’s on Verve, known historically as one of the great jazz record labels.
“So now,” he said, “I’ve been on the label of Elvis, the label of Dylan, and the label of Bill Evans. That’s pretty classy!”
Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers
copyright © 2009 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.