After paring his signature hit “The Way It Is” down to a solo piano reflection accented lightly by mandolin, guitar and the increasingly playful backdrop of his full Noisemakers band, Bruce Hornsby surveyed the crowd at the Lexington Opera House and offered, without apology, a summation of the program’s performance philosophy.
“This is not the kind of show you can wind your watch to.”
The insinuation was that the music Hornsby and company summoned for over 2-and-a-quarter hours favored spontaneity over ensemble tightness. In truth, the show generously dispensed both. At times, the musical clarity and technical precision was remarkably cohesive, whether it was through Hornsby’s own virtuosic runs on piano (the stylistic breadth of which suggested everyone from Charles Ives to Jelly Roll Morton) to the razor sharp fills of Noisemaker drummer Sonny Emory. But the band regularly took tremendous chances, whether it was through song selection (as in the way Hornsby not only pulled out the 1995 swing-savvy nugget “Spider Fingers” on a lark the instant an audience member called for it, but the ease with which the tune to bled into the more countrified “The Dreaded Spoon”) or in myriad instrumental passages, particularly the ones where Hornsby’s piano runs were orchestrated by the animated, Garth Hudson-like keyboard colors of J.T. Thomas.
In short, Hornby’s concert was made up equally of finesse and surprise. Well, that, and a rather remarkable catalog of songs. The performance’s first six selections, excluding a show opening instrumental mix of lyricism and dissonance that set the mischievous tone Hornsby adopted for the entire evening, all came from different albums. Some, like “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” (from 1998’s “Spirit Trail”) established a bopish rumble that led quite unexpectedly into a fervent cover of the late Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.” Others, like “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” (from 2016’s Rehab Reunion”) shifted the instrumentation altogether by placing Hornsby on dulcimer and Emory on washboard for music with a homier design but a feel just as playful as the rest of the set.
There were surprises, as well, as shown to by two very different relics from the 1996 soundtrack to “Tin Cup” – the Cajun-flavored “Big Stick” (with Hornsby playing jubilantly on accordion) and the gospel-esque ballad “Nobody There But Me.”
Closing the show out was what Hornsby termed “one of the five songs” from his catalog audiences recognized, “Mandolin Rain.” But even then, Hornsby was too artistically restless to play the whole tune straight. In began with the melodic appeal and general melancholy that made the song a massive radio hit 30 years ago. But at its conclusion, he shifted the music into a minor key variation that stripped away the pop veneer to reveal the work’s inherent sadness in stark, almost ghostly detail. It was the greatest noise the Noisemakers made all night, even though it played out with an eerie, sobering hush.