Taking the stage without a word, Bruce Hornsby sat down at the piano Friday evening and began playing quiet notes that morphed into “Noah’s Waltz,” an instrumental track that’ll be featured in a forthcoming Spike Lee film for which Hornsby wrote the score.
He followed this with a bluesy rendition of Taj Mahal’s “Linin’ Track” and used the subsequent first break in the music to joke that there were probably a lot of Spike Lee fans in the joint, which sits on the edge of Appalachia in the middle of Ohio. The 100-percent white audience laughed heartily at themselves and with Hornsby at that one.
Such was the flow of Hornsby’s one-hour, 45-minute solo-piano gig at Newark’s Midland Theatre. He’d play. He’d converse a bit. He’d look at the requests strewn on the stage floor and play one. He’d chat. Play some more. Meanwhile, the audience sat silently, applauded enthusiastically, shouted song requests, whooped and hollered and bellowed Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuce much to Hornsby’s delight.
“You always think people love you when your name is Bruce,” he said, sarcastically shoving a middle finger in the air and mumbling what the audience might be thinking if the Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuce was actually a booooooooooooo.
Over the course of the performance, Hornsby played hits in the form of a rearranged “Every Little Kiss.” He dived into deep cuts with the sardonic “Where’s the Bat?” and the personal “Hurray for Tom.” And he touched on his collaborations with Bonnie Raitt with a delicate “I Can’t Make You Love Me;” Don Henley on a highly improvisational “The End of the Innocence,” which he said was the title track from the famously slow-working Eagle’s latest album for 11 years; and the Grateful Dead/The Other Ones with a short mashup of “(Turn On Your) Lovelight” and “Rainbow’s Cadillac.”
There was jazz and classical and boogie-woogie and balladry. And all if it was presented with Hornsby’s trademark precision.
“I’m three times the musician I was when I started out,” he said at one point.
Toward the end of the show, Hornsby introduced “The Way it Is” as a Tupac Shakur song, referencing the latter’s “Changes” and it was impossible not to think about the lanky man in blue jeans and a black button-down shirt as the newcomer who fronted the Range in the 1980s; who went on to open for and later join the Grateful Dead in the 1990s; who subsequently collaborated with everyone from Béla Fleck to Pat Metheny to Ricky Skaggs; and who picked up the dulcimer and founded the Noisemakers in the 2000s.
There have been many careers as long as Hornsby’s. But few have been as eclectic and prolific.
And he never uses a setlist.
Because of that, you never know what you’re going to get when you buy a Horsnby ticket.
But it’s never anything less than astounding.