It is a dilemma faced by many suddenly successful musicians—what do you do when your first album is a multiplatinum smash with a #1 single that earns you a “Best New Artist” Grammy? In Bruce Hornsby’s case, the answer was to continue making as much music as possible, both on his own albums and with others.
In recent years, Hornsby has leaned toward his jazz and improvisational roots by touring with the Grateful Dead, and now the Further Festival. These experiences show through on his first live album, in the long, jazzy pieces like, “Spider Fingers/Tempus Fugit”, a Bud Powell number that opens the second CD with a 10-minute excursion into rhythmic groove-rock bliss.
The hits are here, but not in their original form. For “The Way It Is” and “Great Divide”, Hornsby eases into the tunes with expansive, extended piano solos, something he has been doing since his first tours. The chiming, “Mandolin Rain”, is pasted into a medley with the Garcia/Hunter song, “Muddy River”. The jazzy feel even extends to the once rather ordinary pop of “Valley Road”, which he turns into yet another opportunity for the band to stretch out.
Like all live albums, the fun part here is the stuff you just can’t hear anywhere else. Hornsby’s song, “Jacob’s Ladder”, a hit for Huey Lewis & The News, is paired with the traditional bluegrass of “Blackberry Blossom”, and he takes back “The End of the Innocence”, from Don Henley with an understated, graceful performance that shows just how much he has grown as a vocalist over the years.
Though it was recorded over three years of live shows, this album has all the ups and downs of a cohesive show, including some interesting cover choices like Gershwin’s, “I Loves You Porgy”, and Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”.
It takes a lot for a musician to continue to thrive in his chosen profession long after the hits have stopped coming. Bruce Hornsby has managed to do so through touring, on his own and with others, and that focus pays off here with an entertaining and illuminating look at his career so far.