By Chris Moore:
Right off the bat, I have to address how proud I am of myself that I was able to suppress the strong urge to title this concert review “That’s Just the Way It Was.” As tempting as it was, I’m sure it’s already been used somewhere by someone…
At 8:02 on Friday night at the MGM Grand, only two minutes after the official start time of the concert, Bruce Hornsby appeared unceremoniously by walking out of the shadows, approaching his piano from stage right. No announcements, no opening band. (For a moment, I thought this might be a technician coming out for one last equipment inspection – and, if you’ve ever seen America perform, you know how many times it’s possible for a techie to inspect and tune the guitars!)
As he neared the piano, he surveyed the assortment of papers strewn about the top of his piano. Notes to himself? A set list? Lyrics for the less familiar tunes?
Negative, on all accounts.
Apparently, Hornsby does not work from a setlist. Instead, he takes in requests from the audience before shows in the form 0f handwritten song titles slipped onto the stage. His offical website reports, “Yes, it’s true. Bruce does not have a set list for his concerts. He comes up with the set list through requests from the audience. So, if you attend a concert, be sure to carry paper to write your requests on and place them on the stage.” This is a novel approach, to be certain. I wanted to participate in the process, but I have only been a “greatest hits” fan. Aside from that, I would have had to design a paper airplane that was a marvel of physics in order to have my request reach the stage from my seat in the “Parterre” section of the MGM Grand theater, which is French for orchestra seats (and, apparently, English for “far away from the stage, but still technically on the ground level”).
After a brief, positive commentary from Hornsby about the array of requests, he started into the first song. From the moment his hands touched the keys, it was apparent that he is truly a masterful musician, one of the few that is able to blend intricate classical arrangements into catchy pop/rock, country, and bluesgrass songs.
His first couple selections were played alone, but he was soon joined onstage by the Noise Makers (J.T. Thomas on keyboards, Bobby Read on saxophones (etc.), J.V. Collier on bass, Doug Derryberry on lead guitar, and Sonny Emory on drums). Soon after, they launched into the first song with which I was familiar. “Every Little Kiss” was all piano riffs and rock’n roll catchiness. Well, maybe more adult contemporary than rock, but…
This was the first of several “greatest radio hits” tracks that Hornsby and the Noise Makers performed, much to the delight of my father and I. Overall, the set list was a diverse collection of the hits, the deep tracks, and covers. Some were note-for-note replicas of studio versions, such as “The Good Life,” while others were stripped apart and turned inside out, like “The Way It Is.” There was a definite, if controlled sense of a jam band mentality. During the final jam of the main set, Hornsby slipped from one song to the next, folding in a couple of high-energy verses from Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” I had begun to tire of the jamming by the end of the show, and this fine touch really brought it all back home for me. (Please send your criticisms of that shameless pun to Chris, care of a comment below…)
At one point, Hornsby left the piano to strap on his accordion and take center stage for two songs. As he approached the microphone with the new instrument, he commented that he had recently been with Levon Helm. He introduced the following song by saying that this would please those in the crowd who enjoyed nostalgia, as this was a track from the band — namely, “Evangelne.” The version did not disappoint and proved further that Hornsby is nothing if not an excellent multi-instrumentalist.
Hornsby was a personable, likable figure onstage. In between songs, he kept a running commentary going, reflecting on the state of the economy and thanking everyone for coming out to see him perform all the same. Early on, he revealed that Foxwoods management had told him to play for only 65 minutes. Just over an hour for some who had paid $50 plus a “convenience” charge — that’s outrageous! In his very laid-back manner, he said about as much and said they would stretch it to 90 minutes or so. It sounded as if they told him that 65 minutes was the suggestion and 90 minutes was the outside limit. He was true to his word, as the main set took the show’s running time to just over an hour and a half plus an encore.
Later on in the show, he expressed how happy he was that he remembered all the words to a track from his first album, a song that he played by request.
On the whole, this was a truly enjoyable concert. I have an increased respect for Hornsby’s abilities as a pianist and performer, the Noise Makers were a flexible and vastly talented group, and the MGM Grand is a comfortable environment with excellent acoustics. For my taste, there was too much of a jam band mentality on many of the selections — even Hornsby commented at one point that, due to the time limitations, the songs would be shorter than usual. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, he said. He continued, “There’s a fine line between self-expression and self-indulgence,” glancing with a grin to his bandmates. I couldn’t agree more.
This concert was a bonding experience of sorts for me, as my father is a longtime fan of Hornsby and an even longer-time fan of the song “The Way It Is.” While we both enjoyed the show, the low point of the show was indisputably their performance of the aforementioned hit single. Aside from the initial keyboard blast of the familiar riff, the song was given a new, more jumpy tempo and the tune was stripped apart into an understated sequence of lines. There was none of the charm of the studio version, and all biases being admitted, this version was nothing to brag about on its own. For those five minutes, I appreciated what it must be like to attend a Dylan concert expecting to hear faithful versions of his hits, only to be met with deep tracks and rearranged versions. Still, I maintain that the Dylan live experience offers up new and interesting, entertaining takes on his songs, whereas this was disappointing from all angles.
Regardless, the show as a whole was well worth the $35, and is an experience that I will remember fondly for years to come. Part of that comes out of a bias, but this time a positive one!