When Bruce Hornsby started out a couple of decades ago, he was a roots-influenced piano man with a knack for writing relatively interesting songs sufficiently tied to the pop mainstream to be radio-friendly. And with tunes like "The Way It Is" and "Mandolin Rain," he and his band, the Range, had the hits to prove it. But Hornsby wasn't entirely at home on the Range and subsequently pursued a curiously peripatetic career that has included a stint with the Grateful Dead, collaborations stretching from Ornette Coleman to Tupac Shakur, soundtrack work, live performances with nary a hit in sight, a flirtation with electronica, and an apparent willingness to sing the national anthem virtually any time more than two guys congregate around a ball. His last two—both well-received—releases were a bluegrass collaboration with Ricky Skaggs and a straight-ahead jazz album with Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride. You can't be a dilettante with guys like that. Hornsby's new album, Levitate, co-credited to his longtime backup band, has a welcome Americana pop-rock sound akin to his early days, although strewn with overt and subliminal references to Warren Zevon, Steve Earle, Steely Dan, the Dead, Sun Ra, and Willie Nelson. Meanwhile, scratch the lyrics' surface and they often take bizarre (as in "huh?" as opposed to "cool!") turns, such as a history of western expansionism in terms of vermin, viruses, and sadistic Nazis, and explaining the lethal tendencies of prairie dogs with Marxist theory. For better or worse, you'd never catch Billy Joel doing stuff like that.
Sun., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m., 2009