By all accounts, Bruce Hornsby is having a hell of a year. But if you've been paying attention at all, that's been pretty much every year for the legendary pianist. In the 33 years since fame first found him on 1986's The Way It Is, Hornsby has been a pop star, jazz titan, Grateful Dead member, bluegrass provocateur and more. Suffice to say, this Virginia boy "done good."
Bringing all of that history to the stage is no small feat, but at his recent stop at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee with his band The Noisemakers, Hornsby delivered a dream setlist that spanned from his latest LP Absolute Zero all the way back to his first album and back again with some Hornsby penned (but not recorded) hits thrown in for good measure.
After burning through "Long Black Dress" introducing Zero standout "Never In This House" by playing the song that inspired it, Hornsby and the band (featuring John "J.T." Thomas on keys, JV Collier on bass, Sonny Emory on drums, Gibb Droll on guitar, and Ross Holmes on violin/mandolin) settled into the "tight looseness" that they are known for. At any given moment a song might explode out into a free jazz exploration or fugue only to be immediately warped back into the shape of an instantly recognizable hit.
Case in point: Midway through the set opener S. Carey was brought out on stage to sing the Don Henley hit "The End Of Innocence" only to be met with a seven-minute solo sonic collage from Hornsby leaving Carey hilariously alone at center stage staring at one of his heroes lightly trolling him—or at the very least letting Carey and the audience know that that he *will* be indulged. It is Hornsby's show after all, and all credit is due to his band who over the years have learned to not just follow along with these flights of fancy, but inhabit whatever weird musical world Hornsby chooses to exist in at any given point in an evening.
Late in the evening, the band took to a more acoustic bent with Hornsby on the dulcimer, violinist Ross Holmes on mandolin, and Sonny Emory sporting a washboard to run through some crowd-pleasers – "Every Little Kiss" and "On The Western Skyline from The Way It Is – lending his material some of the not-immediately apparent weight it deserves. Often lost in the narrative of Bruuuuuce is that he is a fantastic writer whose characters are fully fleshed out representations of not just rural Virginia, but our society at large. This has been true since the beginning of his career and is something Hornsby doubles down on Absolute Zero. No matter what kind of artist you think Hornsby is, at his core he's a storyteller, and a master one at that.
And that is ultimately why you go see Bruce Hornsby play. Sure you'll get virtuosic piano playing. You'll even get some jams reminiscent of some of the groups he's played with. But in the end, you leave having heard the plights, fights, and triumphs of your fellow man: The stories. Hornsby is one of the last of the merry pranksters we have left. Get out there and see him while you can.
Eaux Claires resident and Bon Iver member S. Carey opened the show playing songs of his latest release Hundred Acres, and more.