Hornsby delights fans new and old at Lobero

Jul 20, 2005Reviews, Series 17


Latest concert in “Sings Like Hell” series a magical tour through pianist-singer-songwriter’s changing discography

A memorable and nostalgic encounter awaited Bruce Hornsby fans and newcomers alike as the tall, rangy pianist-singer-songwriter brought his band to the Lobero Theatre on Monday night, in a special added attraction in the current “Sings Like Hell” concert series.

Hearing the distinctive man of song and keyboard’s prowess in the intimate confines of the Lobero — as opposed to a sprawling venue like the Bowl, where he has played in the past — made for a magical tour through a unique songbook and pop aesthetic.

As heard on his latest album, last year’s fine “Halcyon Days,” Mr. Hornsby is still in command of the musical qualities that made him an “overnight” sensation back in 1986 — after trying to break into music for years.

Although he has mostly disappeared from radio, Mr. Hornsby has a great long-term relationship with his muse, as we heard in songs from that album played live on Monday, including the vibrant “Gonna Be Some Changes Made,” the rhythmically fired-up “Candy Mountain Run” and the distinctly Randy Newman-esque “Hooray for Tom.”

Mr. Hornsby’s sound has seen some changes, but nothing to radically alter his basic approach to a song. His first big hit, 1986’s “The Way It Is,” ended the first of two sets in the long, relaxed concert, and another early favorite, “Mandolin Rain,” was a stirring encore. Both songs typify Mr. Hornsby’s sound, blending folk, gospel, heartfelt rock and harmonic complexities beneath the easy-going surface, which suggest an odd merger of Aaron Copland and the Allman Brothers.

On top of the strength of the songs themselves, Mr. Hornsby — who was classically trained and did a stint at the Berklee School of Music — insists on a strong sense of musicality in his shows.

He also has an improvisational spirit pulling him close to, if not directly into, the respective scenes of jam bands and jazz.
He’s in great company. The five-piece band Hornsby calls the Noisemakers is a highly musical unit, sensitive to sudden shifts in dynamics and with a malleable set list that is constantly subject to change. J.V. Collier keeps a sturdy and cool foundation on bass, while drummer Sonny Emory wails and supports the band in just the right degrees. Bobby Read adds a subtle jazz tinge on reeds, including a bass clarinet solo on “End of the Innocence.”

In addition to the legion of diehard old-school fans who have followed Mr. Hornsby’s long career, he and his band have earned new fans among the younger jam scene, because of the band’s obvious love of building and riding a good groove, more than just playing songs “as on the record.”

They settled into duets on the long instrumental margins of “Resting Place” and freely stretched out, like a proto-jam band, on “Walk On.”

The jam decree trickles down from the top. Mr. Hornsby himself is open to stretching out, busting arrangements open and otherwise keeping options open. It’s part of his creative creed, and he has the chops to pull it off.

He opened the show solo, maneuvering on the grand piano with a skilled, rubbery ease, slipping into Bach snippets which would reappear, like a running motif, throughout the evening.

His life as a songwriter for others emerged this night, as well. The band played an expansive and elastic version of his song “End of the Innocence,” made radio-friendly by Don Henley.

The giddy two-beat tune “Jacob’s Ladder,” a hit for Huey Lewis, became a vehicle for Mr. Hornsby’s accordion playing, and he invited audience members — women only — to dance on stage for the occasion.

Gospel music plays a sizable role in Mr. Hornbsy’s songwriting palette, both in terms of musical language and lyrical imagery — frequent references to “the river” and the quest for redemption amidst the world’s dark forces.

As heard on the distinctly gospel-ish “Cross the River,” Mr. Hornsby’s soulful vocal and keyboard work drew a logical comparison to Stevie Winwood, another artist who hit his stride in the ’80s and who recently wowed the crowd at Chumash Casino.

Both are artists who have had their share of radio hits, but who also abide by a deep love of music beyond the marketplace, and who come alive in the live setting.

To paraphrase the adage used by the Grateful Dead, with whom Mr. Hornsby has played and produced, there’s nothing quite like a Bruce Hornsby concert. To experience the music in the historical pressure cooker of the Lobero gave it extra moxie and poignancy.