It’s not like me to only find out about a gig 24 hours before it takes place – and even less like me to miss a gig for any reason, so thankfully, while the first happened, it didn’t directly lead to the second in this case and I found myself hovering up high in the upper level of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Saturday night.
Accompanying himself throughout on piano the gentle giant of (hmmm, how to classify Bruce Hornsby’s music succinctly for those not in the know...) Americana-flavoured storytelling, treated an audience of devotees to almost three hours of music, with some light-hearted banter along the way and the odd spot of Q&A (a few more questions might have been asked towards the end of the night had that chap - promising a ‘proper question’ no less - not taken half an hour to essentially ask if Hornsby likes classical music. ‘I’ve been throwing it at you all night’, came the acerbic response...)
I had a few questions going in myself (mostly to do with how regularly Hornsby visits these shores) – and these were all answered from the stage early on, without any prompting from me, as our host gave us a potted history of his activities since his previous UK gig seven years ago, and apologised for not making it here in 2010 due to the ash cloud caused by the erupting Eyjafjallajokull (which he mentioned twice with such confidence that I can only assume his pronunciation was correct!).
But it was the songs (and the playing, of course) that made the night. Hornsby did indeed demonstrate his classical chops at times, not least before launching into The Road Not Taken as the first song of the evening. Older tracks such as A Night on the Town, The Valley Road and Talk of the Town joined more recent material from 2009's Levitate album and Hornsby also entertained with several playful numbers from his Stranger musical before closing the first set with a cover of I Can’t Make You Love Me (his distinctive playing is of course to be heard on Bonnie Raitt’s hit version) and gathering up all the ‘request slips’ that had been deposited on the stage to work through during the break in order to arrive at a set for the second half of the show.
Those of us perched up high had no opportunity to get our requests in, but thankfully our fellow patrons downstairs had excellent taste – if I had been able to request something myself I’d have plumped for either Country Doctor or Spider Fingers and we were treated to both, along with a range of tunes from across Hornsby’s long career from The Way it Is to his recent(ish) bluegrass collaboration with Ricky Skaggs. I have to admit that as wide-ranging as my tastes are generally, bluegrass is not a genre I’ve any fondness for, but at least two of those three songs (the gorgeous Crown of Jewels and the ‘modern version’ of early hit Mandolin Rain) were amongst the finest of the night. Another highlight was his reading of The End of the Innocence, made famous, of course, by the song’s co-writer, one Don Henley.
If a casual fan went to a Hornsby gig with certain expectations they’d possibly manage to leave disappointed – he’s not one to play ‘greatest hits’ sets and even when the big hits are featured they’re very deliberately ‘not like the record’ - actually the same is true of most of the other songs as well. While I did hear of a few converts being made on the spot I think it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of the audience were long-term fans, who have followed most, if not all, of the unique twists and turns Hornsby has taken his career in the past 25 years.
So a fine evening, and an unexpected pleasure at that, but now I really need to get to a full band gig by somebody (anybody!) - the last three I’ve been too have all been (essentially) solo acoustic shows! No, I'm not actually complaining, I wouldn't have missed any of them for the world! (8/10)