Live Music + Gig Reviews

Bruce Hornsby @ Royal Festival Hall, London

18 June 2024

The American pianist’s recent creative renaissance continues with a dazzling, if contrarian, show at Chaka Khan’s Meltdown

Bruce Hornsby performing at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Chaka Khan's Meltdown (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

Bruce Hornsby performing at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Chaka Khan’s Meltdown (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

For those that know him, any mention of Bruce Hornsby will most likely result in thoughts being turned to The Way It Is, the radio-friendly title track of his 1986 debut album that showcased his dazzling ability as a pianist and kickstarted his career. Since then he’s been remarkably prolific, releasing new albums every few years, and in recent years he’s enjoyed something of a late period renaissance, pushing himself in new experimental directions and collaborating with a host of contemporary artists such as Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, James Mercer of The Shins, Danielle Haim, Jamila Woods and American chamber sextet yMusic.

The prospect of a solo show at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Chaka Khan’s Meltdown therefore proved something of an intriguing proposition in terms of what material he would focus on. He begins with a couple of more recent songs, Days Ahead from 2022’ ‘Flicted album and Soon Enough from his 2016 Rehab Reunion album with his then touring band The Noisemakers. Both offer gentle, easy ways into tonight’s performance, something that isn’t always the case for later sections of the show.

He travels further back to the 1980s for a stripped back, de-glossed version of Look Out Any Window before reorienting back to the contemporary for Cast Off, a song from 2019’s Absolute Zero. He later comments how pleasing it was for this album to receive so much acclaim from UK publications (we’d like to think we contributed to some small degree).

At this point in the show signs of change begin to surface. He admits to being something of a contrarian with little interest in performing “replications” of his recorded output. Many of the songs he subsequently plays feature various degrees of deconstruction and improvisation, including many extended avant-classical diversions (“I’m just inflicting a little Anton Webern on you there,” he comments after one).

He also revisits some of his older collaborations, playing The End Of Innocence (which he recorded with Eagles frontman Don Henley) and Halcyon Days which featured Sting and Eric Clapton on the original, “Bruce and the Brits” he fondly recalls. Dreamland, another song from the Halcyon Days album he recorded with Elton John, is one of the standout moments, poignant and benefitting from a more straightforward approach amid all the reworkings. He also plays an elegiac and heartfelt Love Me Still, the song he wrote with Chaka Khan for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1995 Clockers film, “a Khan-Hornsby opus” as he calls it (he expanded on his soundtrack work with Lee in our 2022 interview). Country Doctor, his collaboration with Pat Metheny also gets an airing and showcases his occasionally irregular playing style and desire to pursue unusual musical paths. They all also prove his recent collaborations aren’t a new thing.

Less successful however is his decision to play a cover of The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York with Olivia Chaney. It may have been a well-intentioned tribute to the late Shane MacGowan and a serviceable rendition, but it jars, and there’s an argument that there’s no real need for this song to be heard outside of December.

The Way It Is appears mid-set and, while it still lights up the hall, the pure liquid melody of the original is reconfigured and augmented somewhat, a bold move by an artist focused on doing things on his own terms. He finishes with Mandolin Rain from 1986, but opts to play the “modal, folky” version from his collaboration with American bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs. There’s no doubting Hornsby’s virtuosity, but moments like this also reveal an earthy, substantial quality to his music.

The leftfield nature of parts of tonight’s show may have come as a surprise to certain sections of the crowd, but it was hard not to leave with admiration for a musician who enjoys confounding expectations, remains restlessly creative and still has many compositional urges to satisfy.

buy Bruce Hornsby MP3s or CDs
Spotify Bruce Hornsby on Spotify

More on Bruce Hornsby
Bruce Hornsby @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Bruce Hornsby: “Most people in the pop world want to live a white note life. I’m interested in a little more adventure” – Interview
Bruce Hornsby – ‘Flicted
Bruce Hornsby – Non-Secure Connection
Bruce Hornsby – Absolute Zero