The way it still is

An energetic Bruce Hornsby and band live up to musical legacy

Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers making a pleasant racket at Laxson Auditorium.

Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers making a pleasant racket at Laxson Auditorium.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers, Monday, Sept. 26, Laxson Auditorium, Chico State

Prior to Monday night’s concert at Laxson Auditorium (Sept. 26), my familiarity with and appreciation for Bruce Hornsby’s music began and ended with his beautifully melodic, poetically melancholy radio hits, such as “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and (writing/performing with Don Henley) “The End of the Innocence.” So I went in with high but vague expectations, and Hornsby and his band The Noisemakers surpassed them with nearly two hours of music played with exuberance and the spontaneity of players who truly enjoy and respect each other’s ability to take songs into uncharted territory, romp around a bit, and then get everyone safely back home.

Tall, lanky and wearing casual clothes, Hornsby drew the audience in with a dry sense of humor and a personable manner that made us feel like we were hanging with an old pal and his band in a cozy clubhouse rather than sitting at a formal concert hall. He kicked of the concert with an up-tempo piano improvisation that drew on jazz, classical, bluegrass and rock ’n’ roll before the full band kicked into a long, rollicking exploration of Hornsby and Robbie Robertson’s “Go Back to Your Woods.” It gave each of The Noisemakers a showcase for individual virtuosity as well as ensemble playing.

Drummer Sonny Emory, who has played with everyone from Steely Dan to Earth, Wind and Fire, is obviously in his element as a Noisemaker. Like Hornsby, he possesses an ability to joyfully improvise around the core of a song while never diverting from his mission to supply a solid rhythmic underpinning for the rest of the band. Complementing Emory’s energetic drumming, bassist J.V. Collier held down the bottom end of the rhythm section with a smile, playing with unobtrusive dexterity and taste that kept the songs moving while also conveying the emotional elements of the vocals and the musicians’ melodic solos.

And of solos, there were plenty. Guitarist Gibb Droll added a flavor that fans of Hornsby’s stints with the Grateful Dead (1988-1995) certainly appreciated, especially during extemporaneous additions to “The Valley Road” and a new arrangement of “The Way It Is,” both of which featured Hornsby strumming a dulcimer rather than playing piano (on Hornsby and The Noisemakers’ new album—Rehab Reunion—dulcimer is the only instrument he plays). Violinist and mandolin player Ross Holmes, who continually added subtle emotional and melodic nuances to every song, also came to the fore during an excellent rendering of “Mandolin Rain,” with beautifully arranged support from keyboardist John “J.T.” Thomas, who supplied atmospheric, nearly symphonic background textures to every song.

But of course the star of the show was Hornsby himself, who seemed to be having a great time leading a band of fantastic players through an unscripted set that allowed him plenty of space to perform as a singer. His voice was strong and free, matching the power of lyrics still relevant 30 years after the “The Way It Is” was released: “Standing in line marking time/Waiting for the welfare dime/ ’Cause they can’t buy a job/The man in the silk suit hurries by/As he catches the poor ladies’ eyes/Just for fun he says, ‘Get a job.’”

Opening the show, Sean Watkins, formerly of bluegrass wunderkind band Nickel Creek delivered a set of beautifully crafted, sung and picked songs reflecting the strong connection of his contemporary songwriting sensibilities with the traditions of American mountain music.