The Way It Is

Photo by Sean Smith
Photo by Sean Smith

“Beth/Rest” is the closer to Bon Iver’s immensely successful sophomore album. That LP — strangely titled Bon Iver, Bon Iver — reached No. 2 on Billboard’s U.S. album chart — and its densely layered yet feather-soft orchestrations, along with the uniquely chilly croon of leader Justin Vernon, landed the band a bukoo of high-profile gigs as well as a Grammy. But the record wasn’t immune to criticism, much of which landed squarely on “Beth/Rest.” Filled to bursting with unabashed sentimentality, it keys on echo-enhanced electric piano, airy woodwinds, softly humming synthesizers, highly processed drums and random blasts of jazz-informed electric guitar. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny the song’s overarching influence: Bruce Hornsby.

“It’s like a song I would have written when I was 18,” Vernon told Uncut shortly after the album’s 2011 release, specifically invoking Hornsby’s music as an inspiration for much of the record’s style. “It’s about inviting love into your life, and not being afraid.”

With indie rock’s mainstream-leaning tangents tending further and further toward sonically light, emotionally heavy fare, it’s easy to think that Hornsby might well become an en vogue influence along the lines of Bruce Springsteen (See: Japandroids and The Hold Steady) or The Beach Boys (See: Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective).

Vernon’s buddies in the folk-rocking Megafaun have certainly made it seem possible. The Durham outfit’s Phil Cook has talked up Bruce’s melodies as an influence on both his piano and banjo technique, and he included the Hornsby-esque ballad “Hope You Know” on Megafaun’s last album.

But none of this matters all that much to Hornsby. He’s happy for the attention, but he’s also busy with his own projects, many of which are far removed from the early material Vernon and others are emulating. At present, that means hitting the road with the Noisemakers, his primary backing band for more than a decade.

“I like Bon Iver's music,” the singer wrote in an email to the Xpress. “He has his own way of making music, his own unique take on it, and I find it really moving. I love to listen to our local college station; I rarely know the artists they're playing, but I often find the music played to be among the most interesting and creative that I hear in the pop music area.”

Being busy isn’t new to Hornsby. He’s long been more than a solo artist, writing hits for other musicians — Huey Lewis’ chart-topping cover of “Jacob’s Ladder,” for example — in addition to co-writing and contributing to other popular singles, including Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence” and Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me.”

From the late ‘80s through the early ‘90s, he toured and recorded with The Grateful Dead, blending his propulsive melodies with the legends’ more expansive aesthetic. In recent years, he’s played in a duo with bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs, bolstering the picker with tasteful piano. The two will release a new live album later this month. Since 1995, he’s provided songs for films by Spike Lee. In 2012, he scored the entirety of Lee’s Red Hook Summer, moving things along with bright and expressive piano jingles. Yeah, Bruce Hornsby gets around.

“Most people aren't aware of all these collaborations,” he admits. “There's really no reason they should know about them. Who can keep up, and who cares? I'm surprised when people know about them, and of course, I'm always appreciative that they're interested.”

With his own music, he continues to push things forward. 2011’s Bride of the Noisemakers, his latest with the band, is a double-disc platter flush with bold ideas, such as a wistful original ballad that bleeds organically into an earnest cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” No, Hornsby isn’t worried about who might be mimicking his past works. He’s focused on the future.

“Most people who know my music know the old hits of mine, or songs I wrote that were hits for others, or songs I wrote with other artists for their records,” he says. “I don't expect people to know about the rest of it. But my standard line, said in a light tone, to people who talk to me about the old music without any awareness of the later work, is, ‘You've missed the best part,’ because that's what I truly think.”

who: Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, Aug. 9 (8 p.m./9 p.m. $45/$50. theorangepeel.net)

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