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Review: Improvisation on display at Hornsby’s Deer Valley show
Review » Hornsby and the Noisemakers win over audience with joy of music making.
First Published Jul 15 2013 11:38 pm • Last Updated Jul 15 2013 11:38 pm

The rain cleared Monday night just as Bruce Hornsby, casually and nearly unannounced, walked on stage and sat down at a black grand piano. And though the thunderhead continued to glower overhead for the rest of the evening, Hornsby and his band the Noisemakers managed to make Deer Valley’s grassy amphitheater feel like a warm living room.

Hornsby began his show just before 8:30, after a rainy set from openers, Railroad Earth. Wearing a loose black shirt and blue jeans, he took a seat and launched immediately into Randy Newman’s "The World Isn’t Fair" — a song that, coincidence or not, seemed all the more relevant in a post-recession, and, especially, post-Trayvon Martin world.

At a glance

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers

Where » Deer Valley

When » Monday, July 15, 2013

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Much of the pleasure of watching Hornsby comes from the casualness of his set. During his second song, "Sunflower Cat," he repeatedly turned to look behind him, at the crowd dancing near the end of the stage. Hornsby didn’t stop playing, but he seemed for those moments to be at least as connected with the dancers — which included both dreadlocked hippies and business casual professionals — as with anything on stage.

Later, Hornsby and his band’s laid back stage presence gave them a chance to show off their famous improvisation skills. The show had no set list — I asked a publicist for one before and was told Hornsby wouldn’t be using one — so at various moments in the set Hornsby stood up from the piano and pointed at members of the Noisemakers. They responded with solos. It gave the show the intimate feel of a rehearsal, but a really good one without mistakes and washed in purple stage light.

About halfway through the show Hornsby stepped out from behind the piano into a flimsy black chair and took up a long, Appalachian dulcimer — the first of some of the less common instruments he and his band would play that included accordions and washboards. Before he began playing, he explained that the next song was "about a shopping addiction" and had been inspired by a trip through the West years ago with his 8-year-old son, Russell. Hornsby then launched into "The Good Life," a song that ostensibly seems to critique material culture. Curiously, though, Hornsby and the band played the song with such obvious pleasure — smiling, nodding knowingly at each other — that what stood out was that at least on stage Hornsby and his band really seem to be living the good life.

That strange but not unsatisfying contrast between dark subject matter — drugs, climate change, etc. — and upbeat songs played by people who loved them persisted throughout much of the show; while Hornsby’s career has spanned decades and touched on topics big and small, the unifying theme seems to be that he really likes playing music.

The crowd seemed to reciprocate. Despite the threat of rain, old and new fans — some of whom clearly were younger than some of the songs themselves — nodded approvingly and called out requests. Hornsby accommodated them, playing "Big Stick" and "Mandolin Rain" apparently because he heard people clamoring for them. The latter song was an emotional prelude to the show’s conclusion that left the mountainside hushed. It was one of the few quiet moments, and was broken later as fans approvingly cheered their support as Hornsby walked off the stage.

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