Two-time Grammy award winner Bruce Hornsby must be one of the nicest guys in rock ‘n’ roll--maybe a Mr. Rogers at the piano. He’s obviously got a lot of musical pals. Seemingly, he’s played on everybody’s albums lately, and almost everybody has played on his records. People he’s recorded with recently include Don Henley, The Grateful Dead, Marti Jones, Cheap Trick, Bob Segar, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell and Branford Marsalis. Just about everybody but Milli Vanilli covering Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence.”
Bruce Hornsby and The Range (his three-piece backup band) will conclude their current tour Sunday night at the Ventura Concert Theatre with a two-show benefit for the Red Cross.
“I’ve always wanted to play there,” Hornsby said in a recent telephone interview. “I’ve been there before, but never to play. I saw my buddies, Ambrosia, recently at the Ventura Theatre. We’ll be doing two nights at the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A., then our tour ends with the Ventura show.”
And so far, there’s no hint of a cancellation of the show, from either the theater management or the city of Ventura. The Grateful Dead are permanently gonged from playing Ventura, but maybe the city has a One Dead Dude Rule. Bob Weir played the venue recently and now Hornsby is coming. Maybe nobody knows that he plays with the Dead.
“We opened for the Dead about four years ago,” Hornsby said. “They’ve had other opening acts the last few years, too--Edie Brickell, Los Lobos, 10,000 Maniacs and Bonnie Raitt. Anyway, I’ve always been a Dead fan, and after we opened that time, I sat in with them for a few songs, which became a couple of nights, and now I play with them whenever I can.
“Vince Welnick is the new full-time Dead dude--I’m just a part-timer. And, you know, Jerry Garcia played on my latest album. I did the recent European tour with the Dead--most of the fans turned out to be Americans.”
Hornsby and friends’ current record, “A Night on the Town,” the band’s third, is more mellow, piano rock with a thesaurus-load of insightful lyrics dealing with Important Issues such as klan violence, drunk rednecks on a Saturday night and trying to find someone to hang out with who is not crazy.
And what’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word lawyer ? Introspective and sensitive, right? Sure. Hornsby’s writing partner is his brother, John, a lawyer.
“You know, it’s great to be able to play music and make a buck at it,” Hornsby said. “We really enjoy what we’re doing. We’re not a bunch of serioso artistes--we’re not a bunch of plastic posers. One thing people seem to misunderstand about us is that we are much more intense live than we are on record. For some reason, the records are softer, but our piano, bass rock music is absolutely better live.”
The Ventura gig will probably be a basic sit-down show with not a lot of wild dancing--sort of like a PBS show where people pay attention, and probably not much like the band’s recent Ocean City, Md., show. “We got to the show,” Hornsby said, “and the marquee read '$100 Bikini Contest’ in great big letters while we were in little bitty letters. They ended up canceling the bikini contest . . . but this heavy metal band opened for us. I’m not a big metal fan. It would be a nightmare to have somebody like Anthrax or Queensryche open for us.”
Hornsby’s success is a basic rock-rags-to-rolling-in-riches story, just another 10-year, overnight sensation.
“I started playing piano at 17--kind of late, I guess, but I really got intense about it. Then, when I was 23, I started writing songs and got really intense about that. I worked at 20th Century-Fox for a while as a staff writer and they’d have me do stuff like write a song for Kenny Rogers. I wasn’t very good at it, but I learned a lot about writing. Then I played around and tried to get a record deal for seven or eight years, and finally I got signed by RCA. It’s a fairly typical story, really.”
Now Hornsby is almost too busy to pay attention. He’s the guy who’s never home. The “occupant” mail must be three feet deep on his porch.
“I’ve lived in L. A. for 10 years, and I just moved back to Virginia. No Angels’ games back there; Mark Langston is my buddy. Anyway, I’ve been home 18 days this year.”
So what advice does he have for those young piano virtuosos, the next Bruce Hornsbys, the little kids chained to the big old Baldwin piano?
“You need to be your own worst critic. People are usually much more critical of other people than they are of themselves. It’s in your head, not what’s in the store.”