A roadie dressed in a black fleece finishes his pre-show routine by tapping a few warm notes on the rustic brown, Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. Notes are ringing as he approaches the pile of crumpled slivers of paper at the feet of stage right. After bending over to swoop them up, he neatly assembles the pieces in careful order with the same attention as would a secretary before an important board meeting.
Noticing the window is closing with just a few more minutes before showtime, a blonde teenager rushes up the stage to eagerly submit her hand-written request. The roadie sees the sheet of paper float onto the stage and picks it up without hesitation. Everyone is allowed a request at a Bruce Hornsby concert.
As he has for 29 years, Hornsby welcomes fans to suggest songs from the 20-plus albums he’s produced either as a solo artist, alongside his bands the Range and now the Noisemakers or with his countless collaborators including the Grateful Dead and Bon Iver.
With such a variety in songs to choose from — his repertoire represents a true American melting pot of improvisational jams, gospel, jazz, bluegrass, blues, and heartland rock — Hornsby may very well be synonymous with diversity.
Throughout a consistent and even career, he’s managed to buck the one-hit-wonder label. Although if anyone was confused, he is indeed the singer and songwriter behind the most-played radio song of 1987. “The Way It Is” is perhaps the only “adult contemporary” hit to discuss race relations and challenge economic inequality (while, of course, cementing itself in the pantheon of pop culture with its sampling by Tupac Shakur in the song “Changes”).
A Hornsby concert today finds itself more “contemporary” than “adult”. Sure, the audience is noticeably older with grey ponytails and lipstick-kissed plastic wine glasses seen in spades, but Millennials were not unnoticed. His recent contribution to the new Bon Iver album appears to have extended the everlasting appeal of Hornsby just a little tad further.
Appearing on stage with his current iteration of the Noisemakers, the backing band he’s had since the late 1990s who are virtuosos of improvisation, the six-foot-four Hornsby is the tallest person in the room but carries an air of tender playfulness. He quickly peruses the stack of requests, cracks a sly smile, then begins with a round of curious piano notes soon followed by the tight spattering of his drummer. Is it a start to a song or just a continuation of the jam they played last night? Regardless, a fantasia evolves while the mandolin begins to play.
This year saw the release of Absolute Zero, his 21st album, and a slick detour into the ambient sounds often associated with Steve Reich or Brian Eno. Hornsby has explained how these songs grew from clips and ideas he had left over from soundtracks he recorded for Spike Lee films. His second song of the night was the concert debut of rambunctious “Fractals”, which quickly bled into a crowd-pleasing “The Road Not Taken”, a treasured moment from his 1988 album Scenes from the Southside.
Immediately afterward, in a move that seemed to prove how far removed he is from the big-hit pigeon hold, Hornsby played a soft-hearted version of “The Way It Is”. This five-minute track has come to define the artist, and he’s likely played it during every concert of his career. But instead of saving it for last or playing it like an errand he’s been meaning to knock out, Hornsby seemed genuinely happy to perform this song. He often looked over to his keyboardist and organist John “J.T.” Thomas with smiles and joy as the longtime collaborator took tasty bites out of the melody. Upon finishing the tune, Hornsby stood from his bench to enthusiastically point at J.T. with praise. It’s infectious to watch someone who loves their job.
The evening reached its peak with the oft fan-requested “Fortunate Son”, his song, not the Credence Clearwater Revival one. Before performing the 1998 anthemic beauty, Bruce Hornsby detailed how the song came to be conceived after Roger Waters of Pink Floyd asked him to perform “Comfortably Numb” with him in Spain in the early 1990s.
Upon accepting the request, Hornsby admitted he had never heard the song. He asked his friend Pat Metheny, but he didn’t know it either. At the time, there was a construction crew building him a home studio in Williamsburg, Virginia, and they responded with a resounding “yes, obviously”.
So Hornsby did what any music fan does and went to the only record store in town to hear this song, but the only copy for sale then was from The Wall–Live in Berlin which featured Van Morrison on lead vocals (this version was later used famously in The Departed). Hornsby listened. He then played with Roger Waters in Spain. And when he got back home to Virginia, he sat down on his grand piano with the intent to craft a song that dared to grasp for the same majestic levels.
After relaying this amusing anecdote to a sold-out crowd at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, Hornsby began the song. The opening crescendo of melody awed the crowd who settled deeper into their trance as one of popular music’s greatest side-stepping acts showed how you truly can have your cake and then eat it too.