October 24, 2002
Classic Center-Athens, GA
In the late '80s, pop radio was filled with heavily sequenced fluff and inconsequence. When the trends reached the lowest of lows, Virginian Bruce Hornsby cut through the dullness of his surroundings with the organic and topical "The Way It Is." In the process, he managed to bring genuine songwriting and craft back to the forefront. While something of such substance was destined to be a flash in the pan as far as the top 40 world is concerned, "The Way It Is," "Mandolin Rain," and "Jacob's Ladder" garnered Hornsby the "Best New Artist" Grammy and granted the artist a foundation that allowed him to do what inspired him. His course ever since has been an eclectic trip of twists and turns that have found him touring as keyboardist with The Grateful Dead, co-songwriter on Don Henley's "The End Of The Innocence" and the man in the spotlight of thousands of one night stands. Even armed with the knowledge of Bruce's exploratory nature, the recent Big Swing Face is no less of a complete shock. Between the loops, samples and sinewy funk grooves, there's nary a hint of the pretty piano chords and plaintive vocals for which he has become known. Instead, he gives us the Latin-tinged dance sound of the title track and the Adrian Belew-reminiscent word salad of "Sticks And Stones." If Zappa himself had lived to revisit the feel of his Overnight Sensation, he might've penned the "So Out" lyrics "Smoking on a pink pacifier, genitalia in a hair dryer," but as it turns out, ol' Frank checked out and left that unlikely couplet in the ether for Bruce to snatch. It's strange to hear Big Swing Face and realize that if Beck would've come up with something as instantly out of it and infectious as "Cartoons And Candy," he might've had the hit he needed to push his single-lacking Midnite Vultures. Bruce explains this detour from his usual detours simply by saying, "I just wanted to write some funny shit. So it was liberating." In addition to the obvious whimsy of many of the tracks, there are a couple of more serious numbers. In particular, "This Too Shall Pass" has a timeless melody and an easy-listening jazz electric piano base, but the track is underlined with Brian Eno-esque keyboards and Trent Reznor beats that either make the song extra special or detract from the others depending on the listener. I stand firmly on the former side of that debate. Big Swing Face is brave and confident. Of course, it makes perfect sense that after releasing his least piano-friendly album, the man embarks on a solo piano tour. Maybe he felt the need to make up to his music for the affair he's been having with all of the studio gadgetry evidenced on the new record. How (or if) all of the bells and whistles will be acknowledged in a solo piano live show is impossible to guess in advance. That's part of the fun. My guess is that the production tricks are irrelevant when it comes down to it. The material is strong underneath the gloss. Bruce Hornsby is at ease with pure pop, jazz, soul, funk and psychedelia. I'm sure he can capture the winsome essence of his new material live. Not to mention, he's got a hell of a back catalog to draw from as well. Maybe the artist says it best on "Place Under The Sun" with the soon to be (perhaps not so) immortal words, "Iambic pentameter, nihilism, cynicism, catechism, jingoism, jism, mesmerism, hypnotism, poetic symbolism, Efrem Zimbalism."