It shouldn’t have worked, but when Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby teamed up at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Thursday, it was ear-to-ear smiles and non-stop fun for two hours.
If Skaggs was the reverent keeper of the bluegrass flame, a music that requires and rewards precision and discipline, Hornsby — the jazz-pop jammer — brought gasoline and grins, instigating a conflagration. It was well-crafted, and it was crazy.
Even bluegrass purists were knocked out by a double shot of Hornsby pop hits: ten minutes of “The Way It Is,” and a deconstructed, almost unrecognizable “Mandolin Rain,” with Skaggs’ sizzling Kentucky Thunder band adding poignancy.
When Hornsby stretched “Way” way out of shape with jazzy explorations, the band was right there, all around him, but never hemmed him in.
They built walls, and he painted them.
Things worked just as well in the other direction: When Skaggs led into Bill Monroe’s “Toy Heart” from his own new “Honoring the Fathers” tribute album, he said this is how Monroe’s great 1946-47 band, which built the sound we know now as bluegrass, would sound with a really hot piano player. Hornsby was that and more, a second voice behind Skaggs’ up-hollow tenor and the adrenaline antidote to Skaggs’ calm.
The Hall was packed and Skaggs and Hornsby took the emotional temperature of the place early on, asking if their fans wanted too cool off.
They got an emphatic no, so they poured on the heat.
If bluegrass is often acoustic, polite and quiet, this stuff was bold, strong and loud.
Solos usually started at about 90 mph, then got faster, more complex.
Banjo player Jimmy Mills sometimes grinned after a flurry of hot licks, as if relieved to have negotiated the hard part; but then he usually played something hotter. Fiddler Andy Leftwich stood behind Hornsby, who urged him on again and again, and Leftwich always took it higher. Cody Kilby’s acoustic guitar runs were in the same class for inspiration and energy.
The two powerful ingredients in all this combustible chemical reaction, Hornsby and Skaggs were in tune from a goofy moment when Hornsby brought a mirror up front so they could check their hair until the explosive encore two hours later when they paid tribute to a pig. Skaggs mainly played mandolin, Hornsby the Hall’s Steinway grand, until the end when Skaggs played guitar and Hornsby strapped on his accordion.
If that doesn’t sound bluegrass traditional, then consider this: Skaggs said recently that bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe restlessly experimented until he found that perfect mix with his 1946-47 band.
No one onstage on Thursday was alive then, but they had the blistering speed and infectious melodic buoyancy of bluegrass right down.
They broke all musical speed limits in “Bluegrass Breakdown,” challenging everyone’s ears to keep up.
And when they got poignant, they went deep.
Besides, who else would play Rick James’ X-rated funk “Superfreak” fearlessly, bluegrass-style?