It was another window in the storm Sunday evening when veteran pop-rock singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby took the XPNFest stage with his band The Noisemakers. Drummer Chad Wright slammed into a wicked four-on-the-floor beat, guitarist Gibb Droll entered with some flickering wah pedal guitar, and the band launched into the funky and expansive “Bright Star Cast.” On a day that was patchy at best in terms of the weather, Hornsby kept the sonics consistently high for his 40 minutes onstage; “My Resolve” followed with layers of post new wave pop — the kind The War On Drugs do so well these days — and “Living In The Sunshine” served as an uplifting anthem as well as a wished-for state on this soggy day.
The first two songs were collaborative numbers from Hornsby’s 2020 Zappo Productions release Non-Secure Connection — recorded with guest vocalists Jamila Woods and James Mercer of The Shins, respectively — while the latter is one of the newly unearthed outtakes slated to be on the upcoming 25th anniversary reissue of 1998’s Spirit Trail. Hornsby called it “an old song made new,” and as it built into a cyclonic violin solo by multi-instrumentalist John Mailander, Hornsby stood up from his piano bench, playing with one hand and conducting with the other.
The set centerpiece, however, snuck up on you. It began with nimble and somewhat wacky modernist piano soloing showcasing Hornsby’s irrefutable prowess on his 88 keys. But as one wondered where exactly he was going with this, catchy melodies popped out, chord changes that seemed to sound familiar. Eventually it became clear he and The Noisemakers — rounded out by Gandalfian organist J.T. Thomas and supremely chill bassist Jervonny Collier — were working their way through a radically reinvented version of his 1986 hit “The Way It Is” (famously sampled by 2 Pac on “Changes”). The song was jammed out beyond the 10-minute mark and dressed up with dynamic arrangements and askew solos, building the energy in a way that teased the audience endlessly before finally launching into the familiar version on the final refrain. “You’ve heard the other way so many times,” he laughed as the epic performance concluded.
Hornsby kept this crowd on its toes, switching to Dulcimer for “Over The Rise” — another of his recent collabs, this one recorded with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon — and sitting upstage to play the song with Wright on washboard percussion and Mailander on mandolin. He stayed in that spot, and on that instrument, for the funky country pop fusion of “Prairie Dog Town” that shut the set down. Hornsby told an anecdote about Snoop Dogg (getting his second mention of XPNFest weekend) teasing him about the “Drop It Like It’s Hot” vibe of the song. “But he sampled ‘The Way It Is’ too [on ‘Can’t Say Goodbye’],” Hornsby said. “So it’s a kind of a wash.”