LIVE REVIEW: Bruce Hornsby in Groton, MA (06.24.23)
At a nearly sold-out Groton Hill Music Center on Saturday night, Bruce Hornsby clocked the crowd. “Those of you who only know a few hits are probably lost at sea here. We’ve been in a whole world for a while. A beautiful world.” I remember playing “Mandolin Rain” off the 1986 album The Way It Is quite a bit in high school. Even if unfamiliar with Hornsby’s full back catalog, the audience savored and appreciated the folk, jazz and bluegrass-inspired songs.
It was my first time at the new Groton Hill Music Center. If you’re willing to drive to bucolic Groton, Massachusetts, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful new venue featuring clear acoustics and amazing sight lines. It was thoughtfully designed for musical performances. High ceilings, walls around the stage resembling bamboo and the curved shape of the amphitheater lend to the impressive sound. For those Boston music fans out there, Groton Hill is situated on land where guitarist J. Geils once lived.
Hornsby and the Noisemakers played a two hour show including encore. The Grammy Award-winner waved to the audience as he came onstage. They opened with two songs from their 2019 album Absolute Zero–the title track and “Cast-off.” Fans send in requests ahead of time. “We’ve got some requests and this is the most beautiful one,” Hornsby said. He grabbed a big pair of women’s underwear from the pile of papers atop his piano. He’s a funny guy. He’s also warm, appreciative and socially aware. You immediately notice the Black Lives Matter banner on his website. Hornsby’s a dynamic piano player and overall great performer. You need to have a stage presence, personality and talent to make a piano concert engaging. He said he’d love to come back to Groton Hill for a solo concert sometime.
Hornsby and the band played a couple songs Hornsby wrote with the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter– the expansive “I’ll Take You There” and the reflective “Tropical Cashmere Sweater.” He played with the Grateful Dead for a few years in the late 80s to early 90s. My Deadhead friend appreciated all the jamming throughout the night. They played five songs from the 1998 album Spirit Trail including the bluesy “Preacher in the Ring.” It’ll be the 25th anniversary of that album in the fall. Hornsby sang a different arrangement of “The Way It Is.” I wonder if it’s because he’s played it for nearly 40 years and maybe doesn’t want people singing along. The words came out quickly put together or were long and drawn out. There weren’t any sing-alongs at this show.
Another easily recognizable song, “The Valley Road,” Hornsby said had been reinvented “many times in different ways.” He played the accordion on the slappy, rocking “Big Stick,” a song he wrote about golf for the Kevin Costner film Tin Cup. An audience member called out at one point in the set and he said “I got this. I’ll take it from here.” After declaring that the gig was wearing him out, he introduced the slow, sadder “Rat King” as “a palate cleanser that almost no one in here knows.” It’s from the 2020 album Non-Secure Connection. When people were calling out requests and someone said “Mandolin Rain” Hornsby quipped, “That’s a tough one to overlook.” They closed out the set with a pretty, moving, slower version of the song.