Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Bruce Hornsby invites listeners to join him with music not stuck in past

He plays packed house at the Clyde on Sept. 19


Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published September 8, 2021

There is a tradition at Bruce Hornsby concerts of fans writing requests on little slips on paper and throwing them onstage. This sound likes a great deal for the fans, but what they might not know is that Hornsby uses these slips to take their measure.

“When I get a group of requests when it’s all ‘Mandolin Rain’ and ‘End of the Innocence’ and ‘The Way It Is’ and ‘Valley Road,’ I think, ‘This crowd is not a crowd that’s stayed with me through my crazy peripatetic wanderings.” Hornsby told the Ithaca Journal. “It’s a crowd that’s stuck in the past. So I say, ‘OK, good luck! I hope you like what I’m doing here, because it’s not what you came here for!’”

“The most interesting requests for me are requests from people who are really well-versed in what I do,” Hornsby told the Lancaster Sunday News. “They will know to request part of the Samuel Barber piano sonata or some Charles Ives music.”

Hornsby will bring his peripatetic self to the Clyde Theatre on Sept. 19.

Beyond the 1980s

Most people know Hornsby as the pianist and composer who scored several pop hits (cited above by the man himself) in the 1980s. In 1987, Hornsby won the Grammy for Best New Artist. Nothing to sneeze at. Yet, three years later, he was given ample reason to sneeze.

“I was like, ‘Great, I share this award with Milli Vanilli,’” Hornsby told the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette.

“Let’s face it, the Grammys are not at all about how good you are at what you do. It’s not like winning Most Valuable Player in the NBA. It’s not really quantifiable. What’s mostly nice about it is that my mom’s friends are impressed with it.”

Hornsby owes his initial success to a certain kind of music, but, mostly, he hasn’t wanted to keep making that kind of music.

He has collaborated with Bob Dylan, Chaka Khan, Pat Metheny, and the Grateful Dead. He has put out solo piano records and records with no piano on them. He has released bluegrass and jazz albums, and composed Broadway musicals and movie soundtracks. He has even been known to perform classical pieces in his concerts.

“I just think anybody who has followed what I’ve done realizes I haven’t been too concerned with fitting into people’s expectations of me,” Hornsby told the Arlington Daily Herald. “I’ve always changed, and I’ve gotten letters that say, ‘How dare you?’

“There are some artists who make the same record stylistically over and over again, and they remain very popular. Other artists do that and fall by the wayside because people get bored. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So, I just followed my instincts.”

Rule #1: Don’t Be Bored

His instinct is to first make music that doesn’t bore him, and it’s one that aims for audiences being as excited by his musical discoveries as he is.

“One of my interests I’ve had as a musician is to be a bit of a crusader trying to open people’s ears to different things,” Hornsby said. “In my playing you can hear Bill Monroe as well as Samuel Barber piano sonatas. It’s been my goal to broaden horizons of people who hear popular music all the time.”

One group whose horizons have been broadened by Hornby is rappers. His music has been sampled in many rap songs, including Tupac Shakur’s hit “Changes.”

“I loved that. I also loved the checks! It’s a beautiful definition of ‘money for nothing’,” Hornsby said. “To me, his was the best version. It’s a positive message and I’m really proud he was a fan enough to, in his own way, co-write a song with me.”

Another guy who has indicated that his horizons were broadened by Hornsby is Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Vernon appears on Hornsby’s 2019 album Absolute Zero and Hornsby appears on Bon Iver’s 2019 album i,i.

Some of the songs on Absolute Zero grew out of snippets Hornsby composed for director Spike Lee’s projects over the years.

“I’ve written 230-plus pieces of music for Lee, ranging from one minute long to four minutes,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Lots of these instrumental pieces ­— we call them cues — are fully formed. They wanted to be developed into songs. Fully six or seven of the songs on Absolute Zero have their origin in Spike Lee film cues.”

It was a “crazy, intangible, strange process,” he said, “putting words to an already completed musical picture.”

A Nod to Nostalgia, Too

If you’re reading this and realize that you haven’t kept yourself fully apprised of Hornsby’s forays in recent years — or decades — the artist does have some sympathy for you.

“There’s not enough hours in the day to keep up with what Bruce Hornsby is doing — or Bruce Willis, or Bruce Babbitt, for that matter,” he said with a laugh.

“There’s too many Bruces, and Bruce is not even a common name! Forget all the Jims and Bills and Bobs!”

If you are worrying that Hornsby won’t perform his hits in his upcoming Clyde concert, set your mind at ease.

“I know it’s nostalgic for fans to hear some of the oldies, and I’ll placate them with about five songs,” he told the Richmond News. “But if all I did were the oldies, I’d feel like I was in a prison.”

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