Bruce Hornsby Mixes Stories, Piano Contortions For Solo Playhouse Set

RIDGEFIELD — It is a sure bet that when you go see Bruce Hornsby and his band, The Noisemakers, you will get a tight, entertaining and memorable show. The fun of seeing Hornsby on his frequent solo outings is you never know what will happen, but it’s always guaranteed to be interesting.

When it’s just Hornsby, a microphone, and a grand piano, the audience is also in for an education about the little samples he peppers into his arrangements representing both notable and obscure composers. There are also a few show biz tales and references to his many collaborations, most recently with Bluegrass luminary Ricky Skaggs, who is about to complete a second project with the spider fingered piano man.

The nearly sold-out crowd at The Ridgefield Playhouse got all that and more September 29 when Hornsby arrived for a nearly two-hour set, which was one of a handful of northeastern make-up gigs from when he began suffering throat strain back in the spring.
Instead of opening with an established song, Hornsby perked up his ears when someone’s cell phone began ringing. Instead of admonishing the owner, he used the opportunity to create a short musical variation on the ring tone.

That transitioned perfectly and in key to “The Show Goes On,” which was recorded in 1988 and was featured prominently in the Ron Howard film Backdraft.

Switching to a heavy left-handed boogie-woogie, he took the crowd on a journey into the obscure snake-charming lair of “Preacher in the Ring,” before introducing “Paperboy,” the first of a couple of numbers he created for his musical SCKBSTD.

Hornsby seemed excited to announce that his ambitious but somewhat under-celebrated Broadway project would soon be a motion picture starring Billy Bob Thornton. By this time the artist may have been sensing the audience was ready for something a bit more familiar, so he obliged with a minimally modified “End of the Innocence.”
Turning away from the piano for a moment, Hornsby introduced “Lost in The Snow” as being based on a true story he read in USA Today, before returning to his SCKBSTD songbook for a tune that was eventually dropped from the show — “Where’s The Bat.”

Scanning a pile of written requests that had formed near his feet, Hornsby bowed to the Deadheads in the audience delivering the Grateful Dead version of “The Valley Road.”

Up to this point, he appeared to be working his way up to something very musically intriguing, slowly pushing the improvisational interludes to more and more complex finger work. But his talent for weaving highly varied and complex keyboarding exploded on “Valley Road,” as the song took several sharp turns away from the familiar, treating the audience to what Hornsby does best: fly by the seat of his pants.

Those who were close enough to see his face as he leaned down close to the keys could gauge his reaction to what was coming out of the Steinway grand he was using that evening.

There were subtle occasional frowns when the improvised noodling was not to his liking, and broad smiles and even a little victory whoop when he nailed the run or progression he was straining to accomplish.

Turning again to more familiar waters, Hornsby closed out the show with a few more hits including “Talk of the Town,” “The Way It Is,” and the title track to his 1990 album, Night on the Town.

In between he threw in a humorous autobiographical tune (“What the Hell Happened”), a quick homage to Jimmy Martin on his “20/20 Vision (Walking Around Blind),” before closing the show with another reinterpreted hit, “Mandolin Rain.”

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