Bruce Hornsby sits at his piano to begin a cover of Jimmy Martin’s 20/20 Vision. Photo by Casey Carlson

On the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon in Minneapolis, an iconic sign and marquee light up the night, casting a much needed glow back over the neighborhood. The Uptown Theatre, once a cherished local movie theater, has reemerged this year as a new concert venue hoping to become just as memorable, proudly reclaiming its position as the welcoming beacon for Uptown. The familiar marquee that once showcased movie titles and humorous film quotes has been adapted to its new role, now proudly featuring musicians and artists coming our way, Last night’s letters reserved for none other than the legendary Bruce Hornsby.

Bruce Hornsby is on tour celebrating a 25th anniversary version of 1998’s “Spirit Trail”, of which fans received a complimentary reissue CD when they entered the venue. When “Spirit Trail” was released, it marked a departure from some of his more mainstream pop sound at the time, and may not have resonated as strongly with a broad commercial audience. Despite this, the album is still appreciated by his fans and enthusiasts for both its art and musicianship. In between songs last night, Hornsby spoke about the album, and how he had wanted to make something musically without worrying about the “prison” of mainstream radio.

In a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone following the release of the album, Hornsby said “I’ve recommitted myself to the study of piano. I’ve taken my playing to a whole new level. It’s not something you’d hear with a band.” The album allowed Bruce to elevate his already impressive skills, and that recommitment is still evident a quarter-century later. Last night, Hornsby, now 69, sat alone onstage behind his beautiful Steinway piano, continuing to breathe new life into songs from the album, and his catalog of music. 

A commitment to the piano, especially on Hornsby’s level, requires not only technical skill but also a vast catalog of songs to incorporate into one’s playing. While Hornsby is a talented pianist and songwriter in his own right, his ability to pull snippets of songs from catalogs of predecessors like Bill Evans and composers like György Ligeti, incorporating them into his own instrumentals, is impressive. Rarely did Hornsby use his laminated sheet music or Ipad when performing. They spent more time off to the side of the piano than in front of him. 

The Uptown Theatre has been attracting a good number of acts to the renovated venue (Owl City performs there tonight) And while the venue works great for an active full band, One could easily see the challenges in this venue with a solo act. Hornsby’s performance requires a quiet atmosphere, one that was consistently disrupted by bartenders cracking beers and running dishwashers from the very visible bar off to the side left. Even the building’s air conditioning – needed for today’s unusually warm October day – was loud enough for the audience to look around when it kicked in. The inexpensive folding chairs were also a little uncomfortable for long periods of sitting. The State Theatre up the road downtown, meant for a seated crowd with its bars secluded away from the audience, and its more comfortable cushioned chairs, likely would have been a better choice for this kind of performance.

During the requests segment of the night, a staple in his solo live shows, a large fan-made sign caught Bruce’s eye, asking for “Camp Meeting,” a song he admitted he hadn’t played in at least 14 years. In response, he decided to create a medley, flawlessly intertwining this request with another song, 2016’s “Over The Rise.” Even more remarkable was when a fan shouted that Bruce play something from the Grateful Dead toward the end of the night, to which Bruce responded jokingly, “Oh, you’re here to party?” Many fans cheered, hoping for a brief departure from what Hornsby is best known for – Ballads.

Hornsby spent time as one of the Dead’s pianists and many collaborators beginning in the late 1980’s, and continued to work with the group’s various dead-related projects following 1995. He sat for a moment thinking of what song could fulfill the request before deciding on a bluesy version of his own “The Valley Road” saying, “I showed them how to play this song back in 1990. We played it together a total of 7 times before we all forgot how to play it.”

Hornsby’s ability to pull these songs from thin air and perform them flawlessly is something that goes underappreciated in his live shows, Even if Hornsby doesn’t approach the performance with much confidence at first. “This is the point in the show where I seem to get myself into trouble.” he said, shuffling the fan-written paper requests. Hornsby could discard the ones he doesn’t remember or want to play in favor of easier requests if he wanted to, especially at his age. Instead he does the opposite. He takes unusual and uncommon requests, blending songs of his own with songs from others, and composing them together to create new melodies. Taking the audience – and often himself – on a trek through these musical landscapes together. 

Expanding musical landscapes is something that Hornsby’s discography encourages listeners to do, especially since it showcases his work with a wide array of collaborators. For tonight’s performance, Sean Carey, best known as a member of Bon Iver, took the stage as the opener. Hailing from Eau Claire, his local home and his work with Bon Iver was likely underappreciated at first by most of the audience, unless you were one of few in attendance under 30. Sean acknowledged the generational gap between him and the older crowd, sharing that his introduction to Hornsby’s music was through his dad, who bought and played Hornsby’s records when he was young. Sean jokingly reassured the audience, saying, “That’s not a diss.” The two musicians had officially met in 2016 during a live performance of 2016’s “Day of The Dead” Grateful Dead tribute album at the Eaux Claires music festival. While Sean cites Bruce Hornsby as an influence on his own piano skills and songwriting, Even Hornsby’s extensive discography would often escape Sean. “He asks me backstage sometimes, ‘You know this song of mine?’ I don’t most of the time.”

After his opening set, Sean returned to the stage to provide harmonies and take over some of the lines for some of Hornsby’s most recognizable songs, including “The Way It Is” (featuring a beautifully incorrect, missed note minor version of the song’s iconic intro) and “The End of Innocence”. The latter song was co-written and co-produced by Hornsby with Eagles founder Don Henley in 1989. While these renditions may not have been completely flawless, they were characterized by a playful spirit, Hornsby revealing that neither song had been rehearsed by him and Sean in advance.

Playful spirit are the two words that best define Bruce Hornsby’s solo piano performances, which continue through the American south before wrapping up in Florida next month. While some fans may have been surprised to see Hornsby without his current backing band, The Noisemakers (Hornsby had toured with the band on an earlier run of tour dates up until September) His solo piano performances allow Hornsby to be unrestrained. Listeners who hang onto every note he plays will hear when he nails the landing on propulsive toccatas and chromatic scales. Even when a rare missed note leads to an unexpected key change to make up for it, Hornsby’s skill shines as he finds ways to gracefully guide the song back to its intended form. Each night’s setlist brings new interpretations of his songs that seem to surprise even Bruce Hornsby himself. It’s a beautiful tour through his catalog that his fans, experienced or not, all deserve to hear. 

25th Anniversary Editions of “Spirit Trail” are available Oct 27th, or with purchase of a ticket to the “Spirit Trail” Anniversary Tour this fall. 

Setlist: 

1. 20/20 Vision (Jimmy Martin)

2. Night On The Town

3. Line In The Dust

4. Sneaking Up On Boo Radley/Twelve Tone Tune (Bill Evans)/ L’Escalier Du Diable (Ligeti) 

5. Evening Sun

6. Every Little Kiss

7. Over The Rise (never played on piano)/

8. Camp Meeting/Over The Rise(two requests performed as a medley!)

9. The Road Not Taken

10. The Way It Is (w/ S. Carey)

11. Sticks And Stones

12. Continents Drift

13. The End Of The Innocence (w/ S. Carey)/ Sun Bear Theme (Jarrett)

14. The Valley Road (Dead version)

15. Here We Are Again

16. Mandolin Rain (original version)/The Grand Tour (George Jones)

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