Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers overwhelmed the typically staid Botanic Gardens Wednesday, storming through a two-and-a-half hour, request-heavy set that yanked the entire venue to its feet in a rare garden dance fest.
Fresh off the biggest shows of his career with the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well, five-show tour through California and Chicago, the grand pianoed Hornsby and his crew of crack musicians thrilled the packed venue with several Dead favorites as well as classics from the 60-year-old’s storied career on keys.
Bruce played the maestro, stirring, blending, cajoling and elevating his merry band of Virginia-spawned noisemakers. He pointed to his mandolin-playing fiddler Ross Holmes who delved deeper with each nodding, waving call from the keymaster on “Dreaded Spoon.” His former 25-year partner on organ – a veteran of Don Henley’s band and, more importantly, an alumnus of the mighty Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band – John “JT” Thomas responded to every nod from his boss with boisterous, percussive riffs.
Admitting he was “more of a folkie than a jazzer,” the chatty, engaging Hornsby welcomed his “new blood” like Holmes and celebrated blues guitarist Gibb Droll.
Droll melded deeply with Hornsby’s 21-year bassman J.V. Collier in the off-beat “Tango King,” which featured a sampling of the bridge in the Dead’s “Estimated Prophet.” Hornsby exited “Tango King” apologizing for his indiscernible “screw-ups,” calling it “pretty out to lunch.” Sounded more than alright, though.
So did his soulful take on “Black Muddy River,” a favorite of the late Jerry Garcia. Hornsby noted how he just played five nights with “those guys” and they never got around to the wrenching “Black Muddy River.”
“For everyone who wanted that one … there you go,” he said. And many in the crowd leapt to their feet, braying their appreciation. OK, not that many. Actually it might have been just me.
Hornsby dedicated the lyrical “Pete & Manny” – requested by hollering fans – “to Peyton Manning, supposedly” and manned the squeezebox in center stage. The crowd thickened on the Botanic Gardens’ minimal dance floor for the countrified “Jacob’s Ladder.”
An acoustic set with Hornsby on dulcimer unveiled new tunes from his upcoming album, like “M.I.A. in M-I-A-M-I” with its Dolphin-hued lyrics, “Doesn’t even care that much that I’m not Latino / Pappy says he thinks that I look like Dan Marino” and “Daddy went and changed my name to Don Juan Shula.”
Droll’s poignant guitar joined Holmes’ mandolin and stick-frenzied drummer Moyes Lucas’ washboard and spoons in the pulsing “M.I.A” and the other new tune of the night, “Tipping.”
The new album will feature Hornsby’s esoteric talent on the dulcimer, which he strummed like a veteran. His interpretation of “Old Valley Road” on the tone-rich dulcimer breathed new life into the 27-year-old tune.
Hornsby’s kept the reinterpretation vibe alive as the sun sank over the city. He Mozart-ed his way into the fan-favorite “Way It Is,” spurring his band into some of the deepest, most spontaneous jams of the night.
Taking another request, Hornsby’s boogie-woogie “Sunflower Cat (Some Dour Cat) (Down With That)” spun a rocking twist on the Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower.” The maestro’s weaving of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” into his version of one of the Dead’s mightiest tunes amplified a skillful playfulness that permeated the night.
Again taking a call from the crowd – a persistent one that a lady really, really wanted to hear – Hornsby deviated from his planned encore for a rollicking “total experiment and old timer” as he called it. “Jack Straw” got virtually everyone in the sloping grass on their feet, a rarity at DBG shows. With Droll singing half the song, “Jack Straw” saw Hornsby stroke a mad fiddle jam from Holmes, spurring one of the most dance-worthy moments of the night.
Fans mooing “Bruuuce” spurred some in the crowd to wonder why the star was being booed, but quickly joined the chorus as the gifted storyteller left the stage.