ACL Live Review: Bruce Hornsby
Piano great and his Noisemakers put on a spellbinding set
By Doug Freeman,
12:10PM, Mon. Oct. 7, 2019
“The band doesn’t know what I’m doing,” laughed Bruce Hornsby midway through his Sunday evening set closing out the Tito’s tent. “Because I don’t know what I’m doing.” In fact, the beauty of Hornsby and his backing fivepiece lay in the surprises that the band seemed to spring on itself throughout the hourlong set.
From his place behind the piano, Hornsby, 64, played director and reveled in the jams as he pointed to various Noisemakers to pick up a thread of the song. At one point, he even stood and wandered the stage marveling at the band.
The Virginian opened on the keys, riffing to the violin and guitar in teasing his biggest hit, “The Way It Is.” Then he slid into the title track from latest LP Absolute Zero, followed by Justin Vernon collab “Cast-Off.” He returned at the end of the set to his recent work with Vernon for Bon Iver’s “Man (U Like).”
The performance’s most stellar moments were those that gave the band the most range to roam, from “Pastures of Plenty” to the rollicking “Funhouse.” Taking up the dulcimer with washboard and mandolin accompaniment, Hornsby dipped into “Over the Rise” before returning to the piano to close out the eight-song jam with the bluesy medley segue of “Little Sadie/White Wheeled Limousine/Long Black Veil.”
Although the tent appeared half full throughout the set, those in attendance remained spellbound by the band’s patient and intricately building movements. The tunes wandered freely with a joy that almost made the crowd incidental. While Hornsby’s career has taken numerous turns through defining collaborations with everyone from the Grateful Dead to Ricky Skaggs, his musical curiosity and delight in stylistic exploration continue to make him a vital, if underappreciated, force.