For even the most experienced performers, there’s an art to working in the spotlight alone.
It takes more than solid material, more than self-assurance and engaging stage presence. All of those elements are required, of course, along with something distinctive, if not indefinable. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.
Alone at a piano, veteran singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby touched all those bases in an ambitious two-hour solo performance on Friday at Plaza Live. At this point in his career, he could deliver the hits on auto-pilot, but instead took delight in the risk of re-inventing whatever song happened to cross his mind.
Like the Grateful Dead, a band that he briefly joined on the road in the 1990s, Hornsby looks at songs as fluid creations open to interpretation. It’s the same philosophy that has inspired him to forsake the security of being a pop piano-man for forays into jazz, bluegrass and evocative soundtrack work.
All of those styles competed for attention in Saturday’s show, which opened with a stately piano theme from Hornsby’s score for Spike Lee’s film “Red Hook Summer” that segued into the angular rhythms of “Sad Moon” and a rollicking “It Might As Well Be Me.” The latter was a product of Hornsby’s recent collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
“Couldn’t you have just heard the Grateful Dead doing that one?” Hornsby asked gleefully, adding that Jerry Garcia must be smiling somewhere.
At Hornsby’s feet were dozens of pieces of white paper, requests that fans had left on the stage before the show. Although Hornsby eventually tackled a few of them, he wasn’t in a hurry about it.
“I’ve seen the requests and I like them, but I like this more,” he said, nodding toward his own set list on the piano. Nevertheless, the next song was “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley’s monster hit that he and Hornsby co-wrote.
That was one of many songs that were prefaced by chatty monologues that were alternately endearing, self-deprecating and informative. Hornsby joked about preferring to be introduced as “10-time Grammy loser” and complimented the crowd on its appreciation of the discordant solos that reflected the influence of jazz greats Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans.
“You like your dissonance, Orlando,” he said.
Although Hornsby’s solos tip-toed to the point of self-indulgence a time or two, he never crossed the line. Mostly, the inventive interludes elevated signature songs such as “The Way It Is” and “Mandolin Rain,” the latter slowed down to close the show with a wistful flourish.
“Why spend your life doing the same thing every day?” Hornsby asked at one point.
If change sounds like this, there’s no reason at all.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times