Sometimes, you find love. Sometimes, love finds you. In the case of Bruce Hornsby’s solo shows, and how they eventually, and literally, led me to falling in love with my wife to be, Erin, you simply can’t make this stuff up. Having had one of our first dates at a solo Hornsby show in 2007 at the McCarter Theatre on the campus of Princeton University, I decided it would be a nice sneak away, date night to recapture the magic of five years ago this past Friday, with the same performer on the same stage.
If you’ve never seen Hornsby solo, let me just be crystal clear and say this: make sure you do so, immediately! The man is a true “talent,” to borrow the word used by my loving fiance at the show, a maestro of every genre from Americana to rock to blues to classical to anything and everything in between. Bruce solo shows feature just a man and his grand piano, playing anything he desires, while honoring the many requests scattered about the stage and yelled out by the audience, while inviting you in with his quick wit and humor that are as much a part of the show as his dancing digits.
As the lights dropped at the intimate venue, Hornsby strolled out from the side of the stage in jeans, a mock-turtleneck and black and white basketball sneaker – just another sign of a man who simply is what he is, and comfortable, albeit it quirky and jangly in his lanky frame. Opening with the main score to Red Hook Summer, a Spike Lee film due out this summer, which Hornsby composed, he wasted no time in segueing into a spell-binding fugue by a Russian composer that seemed more appropriate at a Carnegie Hall recital than a rock show.
The early portions of the 2+ hour set were easy and welcoming, as Bruce invited the sold out audience into a casual, relaxed, living room vibe with each passing note. Hornsby played songs such as Harbor Lights, the title track from his 1993 full-length album. Amongst anecdotes and quips, which drew genuine laughter and smiles from the audience, he completely juxtaposed the serious numbers with comical tunes such as The Dreaded Spoon – a song about an eating instrument which Bruce’s dad kept in the glove compartment to swipe ice cream from each of his children during trips to the local parlor rather than get his own. (For the record, Bruce let us know he is still not over it). Or maybe it was Don of Dons, a song he wrote about Donald Trump which pokes fun at all aspects of the tycoon, which includes the lyrics “Now you know who I am/ Don Trump is who I am/ Oh the Don of Dons, the King of Kings/ A sub for the Great ‘I am’/ Now you know who I am/Don Trump is who I am/ and we all should agree, to pay homage to me!” Shakepseare, it is not. But vintage Hornsby, it certainly is.
As the show moved along at any pace that Hornsby wanted it to, one of the single worst work and traffic days I’ve experienced melted off of my shoulders and out of my mind, like a an ice cream cone in the sweltering summer heat. Hornsby had the entire room tapping along to such classics as Talk of the Town, Valley Road, played “the way The Grateful Dead used to play it,” while at any moment he’d bring in a melody, nursery rhyme, or more typically, a classical bridge in almost every tune, before returning to the end of a song with grace and ease.
I was fully encapsulated by the pianist’s performance and enraptured throughout the set. Erin and I didn’t even need to speak a word, but we simply shared a glance, a smile or a touch of our hands, and the message was being provided loud and clear by Hornsby himself. This was particularly true in several instances, including a hymn from the aforementioned Red Hook Summer score, that he wrote with counterpart Chip DeMatteo, or Nobody There But Me, a song on the Tin Cup soundtrack that according to Hornsby, “six people bought” and one that has been played by Willie Nelson.
But, without a doubt the most magical moment of the evening–and one of the most unexpected and amazing of my entire life–came during the encore medley. As Hornsby returned just shy of 10:30PM, and remarked that the Princeton audience always gravitated more towards liking ballads than most of his audiences, he proceeded to start playing a tender Lost Soul before finding his way into such delicate territory it seemed almost too familiar, as if I had been here before. Well, it seems I had been, literally.
And then – IT happened.
Hornsby’s left hand hit a chord that resonated so deeply in mine and Erin’s minds, hearts and souls that we both instantaneously spun our heads towards one another, grabbed one another’s hand tightly enough to cut off circulation, almost in disbelief, and smiled, all while she began to cry. Bruce has started the Grateful Dead’s Standing on the Moon, one of Erin’s favorite songs of all time. The very song that Hornsby had encored with five years ago, in the same venue, on one of our first dates, washed over us like a tidal wave of emotions, memories and cleansed us of any thought that everything we had been through was in any way wrong.
“Standing on the moon
With nothing else to do
A lovely view of heaven
But I’d rather be with you”
Out of well over 1,500 live concerts in my life, I have only experienced moments like this a handful of times – and twice it’s been at Bruce Hornsby solo shows at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. The Halcyon Days that the medley eventually wove to, and a closing King of the Hill did little to shake me out of the trance that I had been in for two hours, and especially from the encore. I obviously never saw Beethoven, Mozart or Bach live, but I honestly believe that a Bruce Hornsby solo show is the closest I will ever get.
Well, at least my wedding song is settled. Now, Bruce – are you available for cocktail hours?