Between the Covers: Bruce Hornsby covers Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Coasters, Van Morrison and More

Bruce Hornsby covers just about everybody in concert.
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Since I write a series dedicated to cover songs its obvious I'm a fan, but most of my favorite artists are ones who perform a lot of covers as well. Sometimes those covers come in the studio but more often than not they come in a live setting. I truly love to hear a great cover done in a concert. It is refreshing. It is surprising. When done right it can knock your breath right out of your lungs. It also allow us to understand an artists influences, when someone covers a song we can assume they like that song and by extension the original artist. For a brief moment we get to hear a part of that great collage of artists, songs and sounds, that inspire the people we love to become the people we love. Sure, I mostly want to hear my favorite band play their songs, but an interesting cover at just the right moment can be divine.

bruce hornsbyA great example of what I'm talking about is Bruce Hornsby. His influences cover the gamut of American music - from jazz to bluegrass, from rock to the avant garde, and even the blues and rap - Hornsby's influences run the map. You can hear these influences not only in the style of his own songs but in the enormous amount of cover songs he has played over the course of his career. His official discography includes the more pop oriented albums of his early career plus a straight jazz trio album released in 2007 and in that same year he released a bluegrass album with Ricky Skaggs. He was an official member of the Grateful Dead in the early '90s and continued to play with their various incarnations after Jerry Garcia's death. He's also performed with a highly divorce group of artist including Bela Fleck, Chaka Khan, Branford Maralis, Clannad, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Chris Whitley, and a whole host of others. In concert you can hear these influences, amongst others as he incorporates all sorts of songs into his act, nestled in amongst his originals.

For this week's cover post I want to highlight Mr. Hornsby and his amazing cover songs, all done live, all for your listening pleasure.

"Fortunate Son>Comfortably Numb"
From the Album Intersections 1985-2005

Bruce Hornsby is a great improvisational player. He very rarely ever performs a show with a written out setlist, instead he gets on stage and plays whatever comes to his mind. Sometimes this means a song gets underplayed, or poorly played, or even forgotten halfway through, but more often than not it means that you get something exciting, something fresh and unrehearsed. So many artists have their concert planned out down to every note and every dance step that its refreshing to see someone let it all hang out, to let the audience see the performer, worts and all, but also allowing for the magic to happen.

It also means that you never know what he's going to play. Hornsby will often start a song only to play another one in the middle of the first song. Its a bit like having a conversation with a bunch of diverse friends. You might start by talking about a movie you just saw when someone will mention a song in the movie which then moves the conversation to the singer of the song which then moves to the singers political beliefs which changes something the president said which changes to something else and something else until after a few minutes the conversation is 800 miles from where it started. Hornsby does that with his music - he'll start a song and then some phrase within that song will remind him of another song and he'll start playing that which then reminds him of something else until he's got a medley of half a dozen songs going. Mostly those changes come and go and never come back again but once in awhile the coupling of two songs works so well that they become forever linked.

Such is the case with Hornsby "Fortunate Son" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." I don't know when he first put them together but once he did he kept the two together for a long time. Listening to this version from his boxed set once can see why. Musically and lyrically the songs are similar enough to fit together and he uses them both to tell a larger story than they do separately. I especially enjoy how at the end he switches back to the lyrics of "Fortunate Son" but its the "Comfortably Numb" music behind it. The couple works so perfectly together its as if they were meant to be.

"Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)">"Idol with the Golden Head">"It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"
From the bootleg dated 11/12/00

Hornsby shows often have a big party feel. He loves to play big songs with big swing, and loves to let the ladies get up on stage and shake their thing. He's also a great talker and tells stories and cracks jokes to get the audience in the mood. This is 13 minutes of pure bliss. In a Bob Dylan sandwich he starts out with "Quinn the Eskimo" which is one of Dylan's lesser songs but still tons of fun and Hornsby tears the roof off with it. He transitions into the Coasters "Idol with the Golden Head" by laying down some scat talking by way of a southern gospel tent revival. He keeps the feel with the song as his backup singers give it the gospel choir treatment. The transition to the classic Dylan number "It Takes a Lot To Laugh" gets Hornsby as preacher once again before he lays down the fire and brimstone of "Train" with its big blues riffs and its elongated vocals. The whole thing is a great big blast and showcases Hornsby's ability to move from song to song to song with ease and style.

"Tupelo Honey"
From the bootleg dated 09/08/90

I have an earlier bootleg where Hornsby plays a snippet of this song before admitting that he really doesn't know it well enough to play it well. Apparently he liked the idea well enough that he went back and learned it for I've got several other bootlegs, including this one, where he plays it. And plays it well.

This is one of my favorite Van Morrison songs and I've included it more than once in mix tapes for my wife. The lyrics are gorgeous and Morrison makes love to the music. This is from a Hornsby solo show so its just him and his keys. I'd love to see the video of this because he seems to be playing both his piano and some sort of synthesizer. I've heard he puts a small synth on top of the piano for these shows and plays it with one hand while simultaneously playing the piano with the other. The synth creates some nice background flourishes while the piano bangs out the tune. Bruce has a great voice for the song, and while it doesn't have the same glorious umph of the original, it is still very pretty.

"Jack Straw"
From the bootleg dated 04/12/96

When the Grateful Dead keyboardist, Brent Mydland died the band hired former Tubes player Vince Welnick to replace him. The only problem was that Vince really wasn't familiar with the Dead. To help him along Bruce Hornsby toured with the band for a little over a year while Vince learned the ropes. By all accounts with Bruce on the keys the Dead played better than they had in years. Later, after Jerry Garcia died Hornsby was influential in getting the surviving members of the Dead to play together again.

In this show Hornsby convinced Phil Lesh and Bob Weir to join him on stage for a few songs. They mostly play Grateful Dead tunes like this one but they do it so freakin' well that I doubt anybody cares. "Jack Straw" is one of the dead's classic western songs where the lyrics lay out a tale as old as the mountains of outlaws, gun fights and betrayals. The music soars and, well, rocks. Bob Weir is especially on laying down salty guitar licks right and left. Lesh likewise drops big bass bombs and its all Hornsby can do to keep up. A great version of a great song.

"Christopher Robin">"Spider Fingers">"Tempus Fugit">("Itsy Bitsy Spider")>("Somewhere Over the Rainbow")>"Spider Fingers">"Tighten Up">"Respect">"Tighten Up">("Spider Fingers")>"Respect"
From the bootleg dated 11/08/98

Hornsby often takes requests at his shows. Generally he'll tell the audience to write them down on a piece of paper and put them on the state and then periodically he'll pick them up and play the song to the best of his ability. Even when he doesn't know the song well he'll give it a shot, though often he'll also mock the choice as is the case here with "Christopher Robin." As mentioned already he often plays songs within songs in some kind of improvisational medley, allowing the music to go wherever his fingers take him. Sometimes as in some of the songs above he'll play several complete songs smashed up together, but other times he'll play just snippets of songs before moving on. Its as if while in the middle of playing one song he is reminded of something else and so he starts playing that something else, only to realize that he either doesn't really know that song well or that it doesn't actually go very well with what he's playing and so he returns to something else.

It happens so often that tapers and bootlegers have come up with a little set-list code to indicate when a song is only in snippet form. You'll see that code above in the form of a parenthesis around the song.

This massive medley starts with Hornsby making fun of whoever requested the Loggins/Mecina songs "Christopher Robin" though he does play a bit of it before teasing out "Spider Fingers" while still singing the lyrics to "Christopher Robin." This turns into a full fledged "Spider Fingers" which jams out for about four minutes before it switches into the Bud Powell jazz tune "Tempus Fugit" from there he goofs on "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for less than a minute each before returning to "Spider Fingers."  Just as you think the song is about to end he busts out "Tighten Up" which moves in and out of ""Respect" and teases "Spider Fingers" once again.

All together its about a 20 minute medley which showcases Bruce's piano chops and his ability to swing all over the place while playing in about half a dozen different genres. In other words its classic Bruce Hornsby. As I said when I started this post I love artists who wear their influences on their sleeve. Bruce Hornsby not only knows how to write a great song but he knows how to cover some of the greatest music ever played. To see him live is to get a history of the last hundred years of music. Not a bad way to spend a night.