Bruce Hornsby is an enviable musician. 

Breaking out in 1986, he sold millions of albums and had huge hit records as a singer-songwriter. He went on to collaborate with a vast number of top artists on the strength of his extraordinary acoustic piano style.

Because of his early success, for decades he’s been able to write the most adventurous and far-out pop music for his own albums, without concern for commercial hits. He’s in a rare echelon of artists who can make the music they want on their own terms. 

You can see him and his band The Noisemakers on Sunday, Sept. 17, at The Clyde Theatre.

Keeping band on their toes

Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers

7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17
The Clyde Theatre
1808 Bluffton Road, Fort Wayne
$39.50-$84.50 · (260) 747-0989

What does a Hornsby concert sound like today? Whatzup spoke with his fiddle and mandolin player John Mailander to find out.

“It’s very wide ranging stylistically because he has so many influences,” Mailander said. “I think the newer music incorporates a modern classical kind of edge to it, but you can hear how it comes from his older stuff, too. There’s a folk and bluegrass influence at times, and there’s a jazz fusion influence at times. 

“It’s fun for us, because we never know exactly where the show is going to go, and Bruce is leading the way. There’s so many different genres that he works into one show that it keeps it really fun for us to follow along.”

Hornsby’s recent albums, with their almost psychedelic sound, are tightly composed and meticulously produced; after all, Hornsby is classically trained. But, The Noisemakers in concert are a whole different affair. 

“It’s very improvisational,” Mailander said. “He just calls the set list as we go in the show, and then the arrangements, he’s conducting on the spot. There are composed sections of certain songs, but he leaves a lot of room for us all to improvise together.”

Finding fans in music community

With his first backing band The Range, Hornsby’s 1986 debut album, The Way It Is, went multiplatinum on the strength of radio favorites “Mandolin Rain,” “Every Little Kiss,” and his most popular hit, “The Way It Is.” 

With lyrics that could be strident in pointing out society’s inequalities but also emotional and sensitive on the ballads, Hornsby sang in a clear, plaintive tenor. The music, under the influence of synth-pop, made use of synthesizers and drum machines, but every song was built around his deftly phrased acoustic piano, and he kept a country-rock sound in the arrangements.

In 1991, blues-rock guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt brought Hornsby in to play on her recording of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The poignant ballad, buoyed by layered keyboards, became an enduring classic. Hornsby’s piano playing was so distinctive that it’s considered his signature performance. 

Around that time, Hornsby was also touring as a member of The Grateful Dead. All this led to collaborations on more than 100 recordings with some very big stars, including Bon Iver, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Ricky Skaggs, Sting, and Willie Nelson. Throughout, his piano makes him instantly identifiable.

An unexpected legacy of Hornsby’s is in hip-hop. His signature piano phrase and the chorus from “The Way It Is” was recast in the 2Pac song “Changes,” for which Hornsby was given co-writing credit. “Changes” was released in 1998, after Tupac Shakur’s death. “Changes” has in turn been sampled by other artists, giving Hornsby’s piano style a kind of immortality in another genre altogether.

Along the way to today, Hornsby has recorded 23 solo albums, selling more 11 million copies worldwide. 

Playing alongside a legend

This tour marks the 25th anniversary of his pivotal solo album Spirit Trail

Every ticket-holder at the concert will receive a copy of the 3-CD 25th anniversary edition of the album, which includes unreleased material and live recordings from the first lineup of The Noisemakers.

Joining Hornsby and Mailander on this outing are J.V. Collier on electric and upright bass, J.T. Thomas on keyboards, Chad Wright on drums, and Gibb Droll on guitar.

Mailander, who is only half Hornsby’s age, brings unique strengths. A bluegrass player from his youth, he graduated from the Berklee College of Music with a grounding in jazz. Recently having relocated from California to Nashville, Tennessee, Mailander is a disciple of the genre-defying violinist Darol Anger. Mailander is known for his collaborations with acoustic artists Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, and his band, the John Mailander Forecast.

When I asked Mailander how playing with Hornsby challenges him musically, he gave a thoughtful and enthusiastic reply. 

“Wow. I think Bruce is an incredible listener, and he assembles groups of musicians that are also great listeners,” he said.

“It’s just fearless music live. I mean, there is an element of fear of what’s going to happen next, but Bruce just embraces that, and it can really push us collectively into some really beautiful places that we wouldn’t be able to go if we knew everything that was coming next. He’s been an amazing teacher in that way. It’s all fun and we’re laughing and having a great time during the show, but the intention behind it is really, really serious.”

Despite working hard to establish himself as a session player, Mailander jumps at every chance to hit the road with Hornsby. 

“I just wait for it all year,” he said. “It’s that feeling of (something) we all crave as musicians.”

While you are going to hear the Noisemakers interpret Hornsby’s compositions from his most recent albums, including 2022’s ’Flicted, Hornsby isn’t above playing hits from the ’80s. 

“I think he’s great at reading the room and what the energy of the show is and what the right song to call is, but we will always play at least two or three of the well-known songs in a show,” Mailander said. “He’s great about changing them up, too, and will stretch out on them often. He’ll incorporate some of the more modern ideas into the older songs sometimes, which is really fun.”

When Hornsby calls “Mandolin Rain,” Mailander gets to play that haunting tremolando that gives everybody goosebumps, on a song written before Mailander was born. 

“Honestly,” he sighs, “I get chills on stage almost every show we play together.”