Photos by Josh Klemons
The Wood Brothers took the stage at the magnificent Warner Theatre in downtown Washington, DC looking both dapper and excited. Chris had on a burgundy suit and Oliver a dark sport coat with jeans. Throughout their short, but well received set, they played material from both of their original albums as well as a few tracks off of their newest eight song cover EP Up Above My Head. They certainly play like brothers, but each clearly has taken a different path in his musical schoolings. Oliver brings his gutsy, rootsy blues into the mix, with lyrics straight out of a soundtrack to a Robert Johnson dream. While Chris, whether thumping, plucking or bowing his upright bass, clearly comes from a world of jazz and funk.
The highlight of the set came with perhaps their strongest song, “Postcards From Hell,” off their second album Loaded. Although the song title elicited a few chuckles when Oliver announced it, he soon let everyone know that it was not intended to be humorous. It’s a touching song about a man with nothing, who can play guitar with the best of them. The song began with just guitar and vocals and then deviated from the album, as Chris took out his bow and did some stunning accompaniments of the melody before joining in with the backbeat. All in all, while one had the sense that most in the audience came out for Bruce Hornsby and did not seem to know the Wood Brothers, they won over the crowd with their roots music in its purest form. It is hard to imagine that these guys did not move some records this night.
Shortly thereafter, Bruce Hornsby took the stage alone, and as usual carrying a stack of letters and requests from fans. Along with these, there was an easily discernible child’s drawing in the pile. He put the material on top of his full grand and said hello to the audience. He let us know that someone had requested a “two-handed independence demo” and he agreed to try. He started out with an old traditional piece “I Truly Understand” and then moved his way into “A Night on the Town.” During the latter, he took one of his unmistakable solos that seemingly moves between genres within the course of a single measure. It would be unfair to say that he is simply playing rock or pop, but likewise his sound could not be easily summed up by simply calling it jazz or classical either. At times it is all of the above; at times it is something completely different. He ranges through soul and folk music, he incorporates bluegrass and gospel and funk into his sound.
After one or two more solo numbers, including “a new one not yet recorded anywhere” called “Soon Enough,” he brought out the Noisemakers. After a measure of silence, a giant drum intro led the song into a massive, funky take on “Resting Place.” Getting things off on a great foot, and setting the tone for the two hour set that was still to come, the band faded out and Hornsby took a stellar piano solo during the middle of the song accompanied only by his drummer, Sonny Emory, and his bassist, J.V. Collier. The bass and the piano traded off licks and fought each other for melody lines.
Bruce Hornsby has been doing his own thing for many decades now and his rapport with the audience is second to none. He gets ready to play a song and then changes his mind at the audience’s whim. He is here to please, and he is still clearly having a good time doing it. He joked around throughout the night, both with his band and with his fans. He took a request for “Eyes on the Prize” and then moved the band into “Circus on the Moon.” The latter song featured the accompaniment of Doug Derryberry who had taken several solos throughout the night, playing electric and acoustic guitar and mandolin but this was the first song where his guitar really cut through the solid sextet and let itself be known. It was appreciated.
After a run through “The End of the Innocence,” Bruce walked over to stage center and picked up a dulcimer. He introduced a song that he announced would be in a new Robin Williams’ movie and then played “Shadow Hand.” Apparently the picture by the child that he had walked out with had come with a note from a four year old fan that she also had an imaginary friend and would like to hear the song about his. He mused that he thought the note might have been written by the girl’s parents. Still on the dulcimer, the band moved into some rock and roll and ran through “Prairie Dog Town.” I for one had never seen rock and roll led by a dulcimer but Hornsby made it work.
He finished with his Appalachian instrument and moved over to his European one, the accordion. He played “Jacob’s Ladder” by request and then sometime in the middle of the song, someone “challenged” him to do “The Way It Is” in a bluegrass mode. He dedicated it to Ricky Skaggs, and while he talked like the band had never done the two-step take on the song, it sounded well rehearsed and ready to go. He moved back to the piano and played “Fortunate Son” with a surprising and intense refrain from “Comfortably Numb” in the middle.
After an almost two hour set, the band had finished. But they barely waited for people to get out of their seats and call them back before re-entering the stage for an encore. Bruce let us know that there had been no request for it, but he delved into “Mandolin Rain” anyway. Someone had called for “Black Muddy River” when he first re-took the stage and the band faded out and he played us just a verse of the haunting and beautiful Garcia/Hunter tune, before bringing the band back and closing out the night with “Cyclone” off of his newest album Levitate. The crowd was on their feet before the band had convened stage center to give us a final bow. A beautiful theater, an amazing musician accompanied by a stellar band following a great opening act. What more could one ask for?