Awesome Exclusive Interview with Bruce Hornsby
Win tickets to see legendary pianist in concert at Zellerbach Hall on April 15.
I’ve been a big fan of Bruce Hornsby since 1986, when his debut LP The Way It Is went to number three on the US pop charts and the album’s title track and “Mandolin Rain” received pervasive airplay.
Hornsby’s career path has been a fascinating winding road ever since: He has released a catalog of outstanding LPs, with his sound ranging from rock (A Night on the Town) to jazz (Hot House) to electronica (Big Swing Face). He has toured with a range of bands—the Range, the Noisemakers, and the Grateful Dead, and has also played numerous solo concerts, during which he reinterprets his songs and those of other songwriters in exciting ways on the grand piano.
Hornsby has been no stranger to the East Bay since his first shows with the Range in the 1980s. He’s played the Concord Pavilion (pre- and post-renovation), Berkeley’s Community Theatre and Greek Theatre, Oakland’s Fox Theater and Oracle Arena, Wente Vineyards, and Yoshi’s Jazz Club at Jack London Square, where he enjoyed several multiple show residencies. He has even played Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts several times, thanks to his longtime friendship with Animal Rescue Foundation co-founder Tony La Russa.
This summer, Hornsby is part of the hottest show in live music, performing with the Dead, as part of the legendary Bay Area band’s 50th anniversary, and final three shows together. But first, Hornsby will visit UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on April 15 as part of Cal Performances’ outstanding spring series—you can enter to win a pair of tickets at the end of this interview.
I spoke with Hornsby about this upcoming concert, as well as a range of topics. Just like Bruce’s freewheeling concerts, the interview had no set list. The conversation began with a short bit of dead air after Bruce’s publicist connected us:
Bruce Hornsby: Hello? You have probably been waiting an obscenely long time for me to pick up
Pete Crooks: No, not really. I was just kind of sitting here spacing out.
I’m sorry; I was talking with my wife about another request she got for Dead tickets. I’m getting rained on with ticket requests, from almost everyone I have ever met.
Aha. I was going to be asking about those shows.
You were going to hit me up for Dead tickets?
(Laughs) No, I was going to mention that the head of a local chamber of commerce told me glumly that he was shut out with his ticket requests. I wanted to ask about the amazing demand for these final shows. I heard that there were many millions of dollars of money orders that had to be returned from the Dead’s North Bay offices.
My impression is that there were some people who were concerned that the three shows would not sell out—but now, it is obvious that many, many more shows would have sold out if they had been put on sale.
I’m certainly glad there is such interest. I think there is a lot of interest from the longtime fans, but I also think there is a great deal of interest from young people. If you think about it, any teenager, or even a music fan in their twenties is too young to have experienced the Grateful Dead in this way. I think a lot of younger music fans realized that this might be their only chance.
I was just listing all the venues that I have seen you play in the East Bay since the first concert I saw you play back in the late 1980s.
That would have been at the Concord Pavilion—I want to be on record to say that I much preferred the old Concord Pavilion, before they changed it. When it was open, it was a great place to play. It was almost like playing in the round. It’s just fine since they renovated it—but it’s not as special as it was before.
I have to agree. But I wanted to ask you what you think of the East Bay as a musical area, as it has had so many venues for you to play over the years. Does it stand out from other parts of the country?
That’s interesting, because you’re right—especially when you add in San Francisco and Palo Alto, there must be 30 or 35 venues. It’s always nice to have even one venue that you know you will come back to, but the Bay Area has many more than that.
One of my favorite memories of seeing you was during one of the lengthy residencies you did at Yoshi’s in Oakland. It was a very spontaneous concert—people were putting little notes on stage with requests and you were playing everything from the Dead to Paul Simon. What are your memories about those Yoshi’s shows?
Well, kind of how you described it, which is just how my shows still are: There is no set list, and I take requests, and that always leads me to new places. I try things that are new.
As far as those Yoshi’s shows, it has been a long time. I remember Huey Lewis and Steve Kimock joining me, and I mostly remember funny things. Like, Steve Parish, who was Jerry Garcia’s head roadie and minder, came to a show and ran into my former keyboard tech, who had tricked the Dead out of some gear on a previous tour. Parish saw him backstage and frisked him.
Diablo magazine just gave your old pal Tony La Russa a Visionary Award for his work with ARF. Can you talk about your relationship with Tony and your help with ARF over the years?
Of course. La Russa has worked me for years. I have been shilling the ARF thing for many years.
I met him during the (1998) McGwire and Sosa home run chase, and he offered to get us tickets for the Cardinals Cubs series that year. I took my then six-year-old sons and my wife to those games. So, I came to Walnut Creek for the next ARF concert and I think the year after that. I did the ARF show 2014, with Bob Weir, and we gave it a little different feeling than the typical Walnut Creek show I think. Bob and I also did that at the Fox Theater in Oakland, with just a piano and a guitar.
Outside of the whole ARF thing, we have been hanging out for years. Dinner with La Russa is always an amazing night. When he was still managing the Cardinals, for 13 straight years, I would visit him in Jupiter, Florida during Spring Training, and he would put together these dinners with a great group of people—and a disparate group: I met Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells and (retired US Army lieutenant general) Hal Moore at some of La Russa’s dinners. Thinking of that, Dinner With La Russa would be a really interesting book.
I always have to ask a movie related question. First, I remember seeing you on the Today show years ago. You said that your band had memorized every line of dialogue from the film Raging Bull because you watched it in the tour buss night after night.
That would have been from the Range days. Raging Bull and Blue Velvet were the bus movies that we watched over and over again. Which says a little bit about our dark side I suppose.
I think that Raging Bull is one of the great comedies of all time. Of course there is a lot going on in that film that is not funny, but there is so much about it that is hilarious. You know how there are some people who say you can live your life by quoting The Godfather? I think another one of those movies is Raging Bull.
What do you watch on the bus these days?
Another movie that is very quotable is Sling Blade, by the great Billy Bob Thornton. We have developed a friendship and he is interested in working on this musical that I wrote called SCKBSTD.
Billy Bob is another friend of La Russa.
You’re right! That’s how I met him!
OK, I’d like to ask about that time in 1986 when you had the number one song in the country. Because when I reflect on that year, two bits of music stand out: “The Way It Is” being played constantly on the radio and, for some reason, the music Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the film Hoosiers. What do you remember about 1986?
It was a complete blur. 1986 and 1987, that was my first year in the big music game. Looking back, it was the least enjoyable time of the past thirty or so years. It was such a full adult dose of tension. I had to learn a lot of new skills that have been very valuable over the years.
It’s very strange—you are grinding away at bars in LA and getting no response, and then all of a sudden you are on Saturday Night Live and the Wogan Show in London and Top of the Pops. Your days start at 6 a.m., with a photo shoot in Central Park, then an interview on the Morning Zoo, and then lunch with some guy in the music business who can make things happen, then another photo shoot, and then the sound check and the gig and then you go to bed and do it all over again.
That was a hard year, and took some getting used to. When we won the Grammy (for Best New Artist), my face was a sickly shade of green.
Now, there were some fantastic experiences during that time as well. We opened for the Eurythmics at the Reichstag in Berlin; there were riots on the other side of the Berlin Wall. And, opening for the Dead at Laguna Seca out your way, obviously opened the door to some wonderful friendships and relationships.
Let’s talk a bit more about the Dead—specifically Jerry Garcia. It has been nearly 20 years since he passed away. Of all the artists who played and recorded with Garcia, you are one that was very involved with him right up until the time of his passing. What do can you tell us about Garcia and your experiences with him?
There are so many memories. He was a very funny guy. I used to phone prank him a lot, and used to make him laugh. I, like millions, miss him a lot.
He was such a bright man, so intelligent, and he had such a broad range of knowledge. He was a walking encyclopedia of folk music. I thought I knew a lot, but when I talked to Garcia I realized there was so much more to learn. I remember riding on the European bus with him in the fall 1990 Dead tour, and just furiously jotting down references to these songs and musicians.
On a comedic level, he turned me on to everyone from Henny Youngman to the Jerky Boys. So, from the humor to the vast range of musical knowledge, he was just a wonderful person.
Finally, I am curious about your solo concert at Zellerbach Hall in April. What can we expect?
I love the solo experience, talk about the broad range stylistically. It takes my music to totally new places, and broadens my harmonic palate. Each solo concert is an entirely new experience—although, I will be kind to the soft core fans, and play a few of the old warhorses. But I will play them in new ways. You just have to be willing to go along for the ride.
That sounds awesome. It makes me think of how many ways Bob Dylan has rearranged “Girl From the North Country” over the years, rather than always playing it the same way it was recorded back in 1963.
Bob Dylan is the perfect example; he is the paradigm for what I do. Not to compare myself to him, but it is all about keeping the music fresh and not so much about being someone’s stroll down memory lane.
Bruce Hornsby plays Zellerbach Hall on April 15. Patrons purchasing tickets will receive a copy of Hornsby’s new CD, Solo Concerts. To enter to win a pair of great seats to the concert, fill out the form below.