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Bruce Hornsby surprises fans at Knuckleheads with genre-spanning performance

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers showed an adventurous spirit at their show Thursday at Knuckleheads.
Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers showed an adventurous spirit at their show Thursday at Knuckleheads. .

Bruce Hornsby told an audience of about 700 at Knuckleheads on Thursday that he was little more than “an aging, gray-haired bastard.” Anyone who was on hand to hear straightforward renditions of his ’80s hits might have agreed with the disparaging self-assessment. Yet fans who fondly recall Hornsby’s stint with the Grateful Dead probably considered the show to be 2 hours and 15 minutes of undiluted bliss.

When Hornsby and his band the Range were named the best new artist at the Grammys 30 years ago, few could have foreseen that Hornsby would become an iconoclastic purveyor of bluegrass, jazz and jam-oriented rock. His seeming indifference to commercial success and the expectations of fans who cherish the muted rock of his 1986 multiplatinum debut album were conspicuous on Thursday.

A rendition of his biggest hit, “The Way It Is,” typified the evening. As keyboardist J.T. Thomas played an organ fugue, Hornsby intoned that “here comes ye olde 2Pac song” before extending the introduction with a solemn jazz solo on piano. Drummer Sonny Emory added a hip-hop beat that alluded to 2Pac’s posthumous 1998 hit “Changes” that references the song.

During a second Hornsby solo that evoked jazz master Brad Mehldau, the performance was inexplicably interrupted by a recording of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.”

Hornsby mentioned the glitch in his introduction to “Fields of Gray,” a composition he said is “the closest I have to a Richie song.” Not everyone appreciated the selection. Hornsby twice implored patrons to lower their voices by holding his forefinger to his mouth during a tender interpretation of the ballad.

A forthright rendition of the 1988 hit “Look Out Any Window” aside, every selection contained adventurous improvisations, intriguing embellishments or surprising instrumentation. The sprightly “Every Little Kiss” was transformed into a hushed lullaby that featured Hornsby on dulcimer. He played accordion and gave his strongest vocal performance of the night on a soulful cover of Robbie Robertson’s “Evangeline.”

Hornsby conducted his five-piece band with a series of nods and smiles. His cues were necessary during the first public performance of “Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues,” an outlaw reverie from a 2007 collaboration with bluegrass titan Ricky Skaggs. Julian Davis, a young Kansan guitar prodigy who opened the concert, joined the band for a rollicking reading of “Pretty Polly.” As with most of Hornsby’s show, Davis’ appearance was unexpected but entirely welcome.

Set list

Place Under the Sun; Pastures of Plenty; Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues; Funhouse; The Tide Will Rise; The Tango King; The Way It Is; Evangeline; The Black Rats of London; Pretty Polly; unknown; Look Out Any Window; Fields of Gray; Space Is the Place; Every Little Kiss.