Photos by Lewis J. Tezak Jr.
There are only a few artists who really excite me when they pop up on the local concert calendar each year. I often attribute it to my discrete and often too picky tastes in what live music I attend. Not just from a musical perspective, but the audience an artist attracts, quality of venue and my ability to make a good recording, or any recording for that matter, all play roles in how I select what live music to attend. That all is heightened when it comes to determining which artists I travel to see as well. Being from Buffalo, day trips to Toronto, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and all points east on Interstate 90, all make for plentiful live music opportunities all year round.
Seeing Bruce Hornsby in my back yard inside the best sounding theater in all of Western New York is something that goes above and exceeds all of my criteria for live music. In fact it’s a slam dunk, whether or not he is with his Noisemaker band. Not only does Bruce never disappoint musically, but his people (Red Light Management) always seem to pick then best places for this versatile pianist and musical collaborator. Bruce has showed Buffalo a ton of love over the years, beginning for me with my first and very best Bruce show attended at the old Melody Fair “in the round” (which is sadly now a Super WalMart) on August 29, 1995, just 20 days after his dear friend Jerry Garcia passed away. I recently posted a fresh transfer of the soundboard version of this show that that my friend Marcus recorded. A truly magical evening of music, with Bruce playing carrying a heavy heart and filled with emotion. What I found out though as the years rolled on is that’s just how he does it all the time.
So much can be said for an artist musically and creatively. Bruce’s deep repertoire of music and collaborations allow for potentially vastly different shows, an ability to showcase his many collaborations and influence, and show off his skill of songwriting or improvisation. This night Bruce chose to show off his wide array of collaborations with many incredible musicians, but working in fan requests through his usual stage lip filled with hand written fan requests that he often picks throughout the show.
The venue was maybe half full and I was able to setup in my favorite spot dead center directly behind the soundboard. The 1,700 seat venue was not surprisingly less than capacity, but the audience was superb. Extremely attentive and respectful, only clapping, talking and shouting requests in between songs. A complete credit to the artist and the respect they have for him. It not only makes for a great experience, but an extra special recording.
Bruce got right to business with “It Might As Well Be Me” which he co-wrote with Robert Hunter. A nice opener with catching lyrics and upbeat playing, perfect opener. The instrumental “Song E (Flat)” segued into “Harbor Lights”, which gave me the impression Bruce meant business tonight. Strong vocals and beautiful playing had everyone in the room captivated three songs in. I don’t know how many times I felt overwhelmed by how much music this one mans puts out by himself on his grand piano. “Harbor Lights” illustrates this beautiful has his showcases his willingness to not play the hit songs like the records.
As expected at any Bruce show, but especially the solo gigs, he was in full storyteller mode tonight. Plenty of crowd interaction for anyone who wanted to get involved, between songs that is. “Where’s The Bat?”, and “The Don of Dons” allowed for Bruce to showcase some of the music he wrote for the musical “SCKBSTD”, and made for some interesting backstories to these fun songs, the latter written about Donald Trump.
I get the hint at Bruce shows that he tries hard to gauge the audience as best as he can. Between the written requests on stage, the cheers for what songs and shouted requests, he is able to tell uniquely what kind of audience he’s performing in front of. He even suggested the idea of there being different types of Bruce fans, such as the ones that only know six of his hits, which he played “End of the Innocence” for. It became clear at this point of the show that if you didn’t know Bruce collaborated with some great musicians, then you know now. This rendition of the song he co wrote with Don Henley checked in as the longest track of the night at 10 minutes and was a definitely fantastic rendition.
The show cranked along with several strong tracks, from hits like “Changes Made” to the old school original “Valley Road” that he shared as the song “the Dead wanted to play”. As a longtime self-appointed Deadhead myself, his time spent with the band is a special era for me as I loved what he brought to the mix. Seeing Hornsby shows when Dead songs are played are a big bonus for me, as well as when he plays one of his tunes that the boys also loved. This version of “Valley Road” was fantastic, bobbing and full of energy especially for the one man grand piano band.
Stops through some of his Skaggs/Hornsby era songs, which he noted that he would be back working again with Rickey Skaggs in the coming year, comprised a good chunk of the middle of the set. A bluegrass version of “Mandolin Rain” (yes bluegrass!) was very different from this hit songs radio fame version, and could potentially turn off one of those fans who come for the hits, but there was no stopping Bruce doing what he wanted to do tonight with some of his regular audience guidance. Even if your request is honored, you won’t know which version you’re going to get!
Tracks written with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, bluegrass covers and songs from his collaboration with Spike Lee made up the remainder of the set, with another powerful Hornsby original “Spider Fingers” chosen to close the set out. I knew the evening wouldn’t go without a mention of Bruce’s involvement in the Levon Helm Benefit that was to come, with the all star cast of musicians he would be playing with. It begged for a cover of The Band but alas it was not to be. “Straight No Chaser” and “Continents Drift” made up an outstanding double encore to close out a solid two-plus hour set.
The incredibly talented Bruce Hornsby treated us to another special night of his music in Buffalo. He more than made sure to give us a wide sampling of his experiences that showcased his piano wizardry in areas of classical, jazz, rock, pop, bluegrass and soulful blues. Even if I didn’t get my staple Grateful Dead cover, we walked out of the show incredibly fulfilled by an incredible night of music. Not to mention the well behaved audience and and amazing acoustics lent a hand to a fine recording to preserve and share for many years to come.
Setlist: It Might As Well Be Me (Florinda). Song E (Flat)> Harbor Lights, Lost in the Snow, Where’s the Bat?, The Don Of Dons, The End of the Innocence, Gonna Be Some Changes Made, Valley Road, Sneaking Up On Boo Radley, The Dreaded Spoon, 20/20 Vision>A Night On The Town, Mandolin Rain, I Can’t Make You Love Me, Country Doctor, The Way It Is, Hymn in C, Spider Fingers Encore: Straight No Chaser, Continents Drift
My recording of the show can be found on etree: