Fans that only identify Bruce Hornsby with his pop/rock hits were in the minority last night at Chicago’s elegant City Winery. The hardcore fans in attendance were well-aware of the multi-instrumentalist’s constantly evolving range of styles. But those that were not in-the-know, were especially in for a treat.
The audience reaction, alone, seemed to indicate that Bruce Hornsby has never been more in demand. The current tour is not just ambitious in term of geography; the repertoire appeals to a diversity of tastes. Hornsby attracts everything from Grateful Dead Heads to classical musos--and on the following night, they would be performing with Willie Nelson and the Charles Daniels Band. That alone says a lot.
There was little time for idle chatter. As soon as he and the quintet of Noisemakers walked onstage to cheers, they got right to work. And without the actual constraints of a predetermined set list, they honored requests and allowed space to play whatever moved them at a given time.
Seated at the massive piano, he launched into 'Preacher in the Ring Pt. 1 and Pt. 2’-- spirited songs that reminded everyone what they came for. His baritone is still as strong and evocative as ever. There was an old-timey, Gospel edge to this portion. ‘Down the Road Tonight / Having A Party’ inspired more of a dance vibe. The pacing of the set list, ad-libbed or not, turned out to be more exhilarating than expected.
‘What the Hell Happened’ (‘Halcyon Days’) was light-hearted and reflective, “Look at my mama / look at my pop,” he crooned, against a simple, but riveting riff. After ticking off the awkward effects of growing up, he faced the audience and triggered their delight.
The team punched ‘Long Cool Tall One’ (‘’Here Come the Noisemakers’) out with great gusto.
Crisp, lounge-style percussion drifted in and out of the head; Emory charmed all with his light and then furious advances. This song provided a sterling platform for solo sax and Hornsby’s cliffhanger changes. After trading riff after riff, they geared up for a thrilling crescendo and then be-bopped back again.
“JV” Collier is a fierce bassist who feels at home with this exploratory repertoire; it was fun to watch his eyes light up as he tackled songs with unorthodox meters and rubato voicings.
As soon as Hornsby plucked out the recognizable riffs of ‘The Way It Is,’ people got up from their seats, ready to sing along and dance. This was another opportunity for the band to get close up and personal with the crowd and also to break new ground. As expected, there was ample room for more extended solo work. Those only familiar with the popular record gained a new appreciation for Hornsby’s expertise, as he even snuck some J.S. Bach into his ramblings.
“She came from the backwoods / Bright teeth, stylish hair / Good fortune and everyone’s smiles / Followed her everywhere…” ‘Crown of Jewels,’ Hornsby’s original ballad about a woman sliding past her prime, sounds like it was snagged from the mountains of Appalachia. Manning a curious-looking mountain dulcimer, Hornsby assumed a much different demeanor than when he was sitting at the piano bench. Emory looked like he had placed a bullet-proof vest over his shirt, but he was actually creating crazy sounds from his metal and brilliant-sounding washboard vest.
Back at the keys, Hornsby played the soft rocker, ‘The Valley Road’. The rhythm section lost no time watching his back. The energy was palpable. ‘TSA Man’ (‘Rehab Reunion’) serves up a look at our increasingly paranoid world. “Stand me up and turn me around,” Hornsby sang cockily, as though he would be the only one savvy enough to breeze through a security line.
“I’m starved for affection and human touch,” he riffed, creating a bit of sympathy for all.
Immediately they launched into another song from the same album, ‘Celestial Railroad’. This cause Celebrex, an Americana-fringed, swingable ditty perfect for melodic intervention, was followed up by ‘The Wild Frontier,’ from ‘The Way It Is / The Wild Frontier’ recorded in 1986:
Hence, a couple of great songs over which the band pulled out all the right stuff.
‘Line in the Dust’ hails from ‘Spirit Trail’. “Hey, wait a minute, what’s that you said?” Colloquial rock at its finest. Shades of Mose Allison or Rickie Lee Jones came to mind as Hornsby internalized American jive while cooking up quirky rhythms.
Doug Derry Berry has been working with Hornsby since 1998. He’s a versatile guitarist/keyboardist with a great ear. Organist John “J.T.” Thomas knows exactly when to be bold and melodic and when to lay back. His advances added a great deal to the overall momentum.
Bobby Read went the extra mile by demonstrating his impressive use of the wind controller and cooling the set down with rich sax work.
This was a terrific concert which allowed Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers lots of room to display their chops or spontaneously fan out into a group outro. If you have the chance, make sure to catch them. Whether you have followed this storied career over the years or you’re just getting started, you’ll acquire a better understanding of roots music, fusion, and pop.
Preacher in the Ring Pt. 1
Preacher in the Ring Pt. 2
Down the Road Tonight / Having A Party
What the Hell Happened
Long Tall Cool One
The Way It is
Crown of Jewels
The Valley Road
The Wild Frontier
Line in The Dust