Bruce Hornsby Is Going Back to Tulsa One More Time
Bruce Hornsby didn’t have to do it – it was clear he had won this audience over decades ago – but he did. Seating himself at the piano to the rapturous applause of a thicket of boomers and more than a scattering of hipsters, Hornsby launched into a rollicking performance of “Home Sweet Oklahoma” by Tulsa music legend and Hornsby’s own keyboard hero, Leon Russell. An inspired choice, it was a poetic instance of past perfectly harmonizing with present; the kind of magical moment for which this historic honky tonk is well known and well loved. And thus began an exceptional evening of music.
With a strong, clear voice and dancing hands, Hornsby quickly followed with two more songs, bringing his killer band along for the joyful ride. After a nod at guitarist Gibb Droll during “Preacher in the Ring”, Hornsby stood up, and with a grin, began to shuffle through a large pile of handwritten song requests stacked on his piano, while Droll (a relatively new addition to the band after the departure of longtime member Doug Derryberry) embarked on a Dead-like meandering jam.
Greeting the audience at the end of the song, Hornsby was met with loud applause and a low, rumbling chorus of “Bruuuuce”, an enthusiastic chant that continued throughout the night. “Thanks for coming,” he said smiling. “We’ve got lots of requests here, but ‘Home Sweet Oklahoma’ wasn’t one of them, but I just talked to one of my heroes, Mr. Leon Russell, three hours ago. He’s out in LA.” Hornsby maintained this easy rapport with his fans throughout the night, even signing copies of old album covers and CDs from the stage.
Dressed in a black shirt and jeans, Hornsby seemed relaxed, occasionally wandering the stage as he directed his band with just a look or a nod, appreciating their superb performance as much as his audience did. Like a group of old friends gathered for a jam, Hornsby and his Noisemakers appeared to genuinely enjoy themselves, and it was a delight to witness both their comfortable dynamic and their expertise. Each musician – Droll, John “JT” Thomas (keys), JV Collier (bass), Sonny Emory (drums), and Ross Holmes (fiddle, mandolin) – showed some impressive chops throughout the evening. Holmes, a former member of the now defunct newgrass band Cadillac Sky who has also toured with Mumford & Sons, added exquisite fiddle and some lovely harmony to “The Red Plains”, an “oft-requested song,” according to Hornsby.
After a rousing version of Leon Russell’s bluesy “Life of the Party” from the Hornsby produced 1992 album Anything Can Happen, Hornsby stepped out from the piano to center stage where he picked up an accordion and dove into “Defenders of the Flag”, complete with floor-shaking percussion from drummer Emory and outstanding bass and guitar solos from Collier and Droll. “This is definitely a ballroom, so we’re playing some ballroom material,” Hornsby noted before beginning the Cajun influenced “Big Stick”, written for the 1996 movie Tin Cup. Moving to the very edge of the stage, Hornsby gave the fans upfront their money’s worth.
After returning to the piano for a particularly poignant rendition of the Don Henley co-penned “The End of the Innocence”, Hornsby pulled from his pile of requests to play “Across the River”, his band finishing out the song with a joyful and energetic jam. “Gonna Be Some Changes Made” followed after a very cool intro with Hornsby on the piano accompanied by the gifted Emory on drums.
Moving back to center stage, Hornsby picked up a dulcimer and played a set of four songs, some of which will be on his next album. It was a beautiful set, with Holmes plucking on his fiddle and Emory rapping out a lively rhythm on washboard. Finishing out the night with more requests performed on both piano and accordion – “Mandolin Rain” and “Jacob’s Ladder” among them – Hornsby exited the stage with the crowd already clamoring for an encore. “Your hometown hero is certainly one of mine,” Hornsby said, once again referencing Russell, as he returned moments later. Closing with a spirited performance of “Cruise Control”, Hornsby ended the show much as he had started it: truly on a high note.