Summoning The Vulgate: Bruce Hornsby Talks Funhouse Fest, Leon Russell, The Noisemakers & More

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Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Oteil Burbridge, John Medeski, Marc Brownstein, Mihali Savoulidis, Marcus King, Chris Wood, Andy Falco and many more. (A full archive of more than 40 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)

How best to tee-up Bruce Hornsby?

Well, for starters, you don’t so much interview him as play two-hand touch with his thoughts — you want to keep him humming along and hear every last reference, witticism, name-drop, mention or turn-of-phrase, as if corralling the man with questions would only limit, not organize, the situation. So, in the spirit of The Art OF The Sit-In and our freewheeling discussions with scene luminaries, we decided to leave Bruce largely uncut, resulting in one of the more unconventional interviews ever to land in this space.

How else to tee-up Bruce Hornsby?

Virtuoso. Grateful Dead alumnus. “American singer and keyboardist.” Gifted crafter of pop earworms. Jazz enthusiast. Flag-waver for contemporary classical and the quite natural ways it intersects with all of his other selves. Protector of — and subversive presence gently undermining — the “vulgate,” which in retrospect became the centerpiece of our conversation, by way of his old friend, the late Leon Russell.

Here’s Hornsby on some big things coming — the continued live releases by his reworked Noisemakers band, a good-sized spring and summer tour schedule, including his upcoming Funhouse Fest in June in Virginia — and a few big things to not forget about.

BRUCE HORNSBY: Chad. Your name wouldn’t happen to be Chad Barker, would it?

JAMBASE: No sir, but still a Chad B.

BH: My boys had a fake Facebook character named Chad Barker. They pretended to be a guy from their local high school who would say insane and inflammatory things, and I think he was even barred from the premises at a certain point. It made for a hilarious two months.

JAMBASE: The legend lives on!

BH: The legend lives on all of these years later. It’s perpetuating in my mind. When I hear Chad … I think of Chad Barker. Maybe Chad Barker will be my new hotel pseudonym. I might immortalize it.

JAMBASE: So it is written. So Bruce, you announced the lineup for the 2017 Funhouse Festival. What goes into programming it? What do you want to do with this?

BH: Increasingly, it’s a more fully fleshed out version of the Bruce aesthetic. It’s the Barker aesthetic! [laughs] No, no, well there are some areas of the festival that have not been announced yet, but I’ll give you a perfect example of what I mean. We’re playing Friday night, and there will be two stages, and for attribution I need to give a nod to Justin Vernon’s great Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, which our band played last summer. The way they put together that festival in so many ways is exemplary — it’s the best festival I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve been a part of loads of them as you know, and I’ve stolen a few ideas, including the multiple stages, which allows the music to virtually never stop.

For us we had the one stage before and the standard scenario where the band plays, they tear it down, and then another band plays, and they tear that down. But in this situation you have these two stages and the music need never really stop except for that five to 10 minutes of silence between sets that’s kind of a little golden palate cleanser.

Friday night is the example of … so, for years I’ve been increasingly interested and influenced by modern classical music. It’s shown most clearly on my solo concerts record from 2014 and I was playing classical pieces by Elliott Carter, or Schoenberg, or Ligeti, or Charles Ives, and then playing songs I’ve written that are influenced by this modern classical language.

On one stage we have a string quartet from the Virginia Symphony. And then after that on the main stage is Sheryl Crow. The next day you have Kenny Garrett. Most of these situations, the acts on the bill, are people who are friends of mine. I do a lot of music for Spike Lee and I’m working on his new Netflix series based on his movie She’s Gotta Have It. We did a session in Brooklyn with Kenny Garrett’s group and the singer and actor Leslie Odom Jr. on lead vocals. Pat Metheny turned me on to Kenny and his band and we became friends, and so now Kenny Garrett is playing the Saturday opening jazz slot.

On the second stage you have yMusic, and then we have The Staves, the great British group, and then Lake Street Dive, and then later will be Bruce Sings Jerry. For years I’ve been proselytizing to get the word out, basically just trying to expand the consciousness of the Dead having one of the great songwriting canons in the history of popular music. I always thought they were underappreciated as songwriters. I thought it was a nice nod that Jerry [Garcia] and [Robert] Hunter were inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

Rhiannon Giddens will be playing and then Sonny Emory and I will be playing a duo concert on the small stage, and that will be the set I’m doing I’m most looking forward to. So that’s what exciting creatively for me. [Funhouse] is a little less heavy on the bluegrass this year than last year, but there you have it. It reflects my tastes.

JAMBASE: The modern classical influence, when did that begin for you? You focus on it now but you can hear it in your recordings from way back, too.

BH: I’ve been interested since I was in college. Our first single that ever came out — “Every Little Kiss” — very pop, the intro was a paraphrase of the “Concord Sonata,” maybe Charles Ives’ most famous piece, and I’m paraphrasing the most tonal aspect of it. For the uninitiated, it’s called “The Alcotts,” and it’s the one that probably goes down easiest. I paraphrased it, so much that they threatened to sue me [laughs] and I said, yeah, it’s an homage to him, so they said, OK, forget it.

But there’s a funny reason this sort of got ramped up. In 2003, after being with RCA Records for 18 years, Clive Davis came in and dropped my ass. I was out, but I quickly found a safe haven at Columbia and I got to make records with the great old classic red label. My records from then look like Bob Dylan records — not as good, almost surely, but they looked the same. The best part about signing to Columbia was that they have one of the greatest catalogs in history of any company in the world. They allow you — they used to anyway, this is 2003 when CDs still had some worth — to just go and raid their catalog. I ordered 176 CDs from them: pop, jazz, classical, old time. Probably a good 40 to 50 percent of what I ordered was in the modern classical era, stuff like Boulez conducting the entire Webern, or Glenn Gould Plays Schoenberg, or Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. So I got to immersing myself in all of this music. It’s very challenging — most people hate it — but I got really interested in this and learning the pieces and gradually [it began] influencing my songwriting.

Now, I love the most old time gutbucket folk-blues-gospel music — America’s original music, that which is very basic, and then this modern music which is the opposite. It is not the music of the people. It’s not. I can tell you a great Leon Russell story here about that but I’ll leave that for another time.

JAMBASE: Oh, no, I want the Leon story.

BH: OK, so my writing was more interesting by then than when I started with Columbia Records. Why more so now and why a deeper immersion into the more adventurous and harmonically challenging of modern classical music, that’s the [stuff] I’ve been involved in. I got the attention of Michael Tilson Thomas, the great conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and before that the London Symphony Orchestra — he was a Leonard Bernstein protege, and he’s a big name in the classical world. That’s a big reason for this, it’s just a more intense influence now happening than ever before.

But the Leon story is this: You know I worked with Leon in the early nineties. We did a record for Virgin that didn’t do much. I had an amazing experience with him. I spoke at his funeral in Tulsa in November; we were close for a number of years. In ‘93, I had just made this record called Harbor Lights, which was notable for the increasing use of the jazz language in my music. It was a more adventurous record than I had been making. Pat Metheny is on there, Branford Marsalis is on there. Leon Russell … you know Leon always hated jazz? The “J word” was a four letter word. [in Leon voice] “Oh, they’re just lost in the j.” He had made this record in the seventies called Stop All That Jazz, and it’s got an amazing cover: this African tribe standing around and Leon sitting in a pot like they’re boiling him. [laughs] It’s way the fuck out. Leon was a character.

So we’re playing outside of Bakersfield. Leon’s on the bill on another stage across the fairgrounds, and he says come sit-in after your set, they were playing later than we were on another set. I played accordion. It was the one gig I could sit-in on where they couldn’t stump me. I knew Leon’s music really well. We had a great time at the gig. We went back to the bus. He called me “H” or “Horny Man.” He said, “I really like that record you made, Harbor Lights.” I said, “The dreaded J – I know how fond you are of it.” He laughed and said, “No I really like it, it’s really good.” We talked about that and something else and it was time for me to go, so I’m saying goodbye to everyone, and then he says, “Hey, H, one thing.” I stopped and said yes. “Don’t forget the vulgate.” I said, “What?” Leon replies “The language of the people.” Meaning, don’t get hung up on all your fancy-ass chords and musical stuff that you lose site of the language of the people — the more sort of simple music.

Of course I didn’t listen to him at all [laughs], but a couple of records later I went back to more basic music, in my record Spirit Trail (1998). But that’s the classic Leon: “Don’t forget the vulgate.” Now I’ve really forgotten the vulgate. I regularly inflict this on my poor unsuspecting audience, but it’s quite well received. So there you have it. That’s another long-winded answer to your question but the best way to hear it is in the solo concerts record.

JAMBASE: Do you think the Grateful Dead represent a full range, from that sort of musical complexity to the vulgate?

BH: I was mainly talking about them as songwriters, but if you deal with their entire corpus — their entire oeuvre — it’s all in there. They had so many disparate personalities shaping that sound. The two I’d talk about here are Garcia, who was to me an encyclopedia of folk and old time, and then Phil [Lesh] who studied with Luciano Berio. You had him on one hand espousing the merits of dodecaphonics, and then Garcia, who was just as happy to play bluegrass with Old & In The Way then anything he did. Bill Monroe to 12-tone music — that’s range.

I reside in the same big house. So really, yeah, the Dead was sort of a version of this same broad range. You want vulgate, the Dead’s got it. Just like I do. My last record was a dulcimer record, it was very simple music. The dulcimer is a diatonic instrument, there are no black keys on it, and it forces you to write simple music.

So many of the great Garcia songs sound like they could have been written 100 years ago. “Brokedown Palace,” “Wharf Rat,” “Ripple” and on and on, that music is the music of the people, the vulgate as Leon would say. But then you have “Drums” and “Space,” an improvised vision of the ideas brought forth by say Ornette Coleman in the jazz world, or John Cage in chance music, or aleatoric music.

I’ll try to shut the fuck up. You’re going to go back and this will be like a few paragraphs about Funhouse Fest and we don’t get the real shape of the conversation.

JAMBASE: Oh, no, I will challenge that as much of this will get into the piece as possible.

BH: All right.

JAMBASE: Do you stay in touch with the members of the Grateful Dead?

BH: Yeah, off and on. I texted Billy the K [drummer Bill Kreutzmann] happy birthday greetings, and I presented Bobby Weir with an Americana music award. I had a great time with my opening speech, comparing him to Priapus.

JAMBASE: Did he appreciate that?

BH: I think he got a good charge out of it. I saw a good picture of him looking at me with a bit of a bemused grin, and I’m laughing my ass off. I had a great time visiting with him at that affair. But otherwise, I’ve not talked to Phil or Mick [drummer Mickey Hart] since Fare Thee Well, not that I remember. So two out of four.

Jeff [Chimenti] is a good pal and a great talent. I ran into Oteil [Burbridge] somewhere along the way, we did a couple of festivals with Tedeschi Trucks Band — Oteil’s brother Kofi is in the band and he was just hanging around. I had a nice time visiting with him on how great this Dead & Company thing has been — a fantastic band — and I was giving him kudos and accolades and plaudits and laudatory remarks regarding that group.

JAMBASE: I wanted to ask about your new Live Noise series and these shows with The Noisemakers.

BH: Yes! They’re good examples of what we do live, which is very loose. The reason that … well, one of many reasons why we painstakingly mixed up 10 concerts and are putting them out once per month is that we’d like to get the word out about our band. A lot of people just don’t really know what we do, and our band has reached a new place. It’s very exciting; we have two new members. I brought in a fiddle and mandolin player, Ross Holmes [who joined The Noisemakers in 2014] — he’s young enough to be our kid, he played with Mumford & Sons. And then the great Gibb Droll on the guitar, who for a long time played with Keller Williams and Jeff Sipe and is known to the jam community.

So I just wanted to get the word out about our group and I hope people can hear it. One opens with an Elliott Carter piece then goes into “Pretty Polly.” It’s an expression — the best expression. The solo thing might be the most unique mode of expression I’m involved in, but this is right up there. It’s just a big party. It’s just a big joyful noise. We played 111 of my songs on the tour and in the 10 concerts we’re putting out, there are 70 of my songs plus all the other covers and old time songs we do like “Pretty Polly” and “Green Green Rocky Road.” We’ll do “Long Black Veil.” We’ll do “Black Muddy River.” It’s just a sum total.

It’s hard to get the word out about a 62-year-old buzzard’s shit these days, but I think it’s special, I really do. That’s what Live Noise has been all about. It’s all free, so I hope people will take a minute to check it out.

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