It didn’t take long at Bruce Hornsby’s Wiltern appearance to realize that the man has loosened up quite a bit. The jazzy singer-songwriter took the historic stage in dark jeans, T-shirt and sneakers and, alone at his piano, quickly launched into the title track from his current RCA effort “Harbor This is the Virginia native’s first road trek without his former backing band , the Range, and his first since his celebrated excursion with the Grateful Dead , a long touring experience that’s given him a wider-eyed, more confident attitude on the concert stage. Hornsby executes smooth style shifts and tempo changes now with an improvisational flair that owes a debt, certainly, to his Dead brethren.
The Dead classic “Scarlet Begonias,” long a second-set opener for that band, was as at home next to the accordion-flavored “Long Race,” from Hornsby’s first album, as it was leading into “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which featured a guest spot from the song’s author, Bonnie Raitt, further testimony to Hornsby’s re-discovered versatility.
After Raitt dazzled the near-capacity crowd, another only-in-L.A. moment came when “Tonight Show” bandleader Branford Marsalis joined Hornsby and Co., playing soprano sax on the next track, “Talk of the Town,” a smoky jazz number that considers interracial romance. Marsalis, who successfully fought an early battle with the sound mix, also returned for Hornsby’s biggest hit, 1986’s “The Way It Is.” (That song triggered a move toward the exit for many from the 170-minute show.)
Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” also rated high, as did “What a Time,” from the new album, a song whose style more than recalls Morrison. Other highlights included the tightly performed “Long Tall Cool One,” the haunting “Age of Innocence” (which Hornsby co-wrote with pal Don Henley, who recorded it) and “China Doll,” one of his most striking musical compositions, thanks in part to the song’s piano solo.
Hornsby’s pleasant demeanor, maturing songwriting, new-found performing confidence and warm rapport with his audience (he even asked for and fulfilled song requests) position him as an artist with the potential to command long-term creative respect and sizable commercial import. Like a jazz-flavored John Mellencamp, his “everyman” themes and comfortably familiar approach repeatedly strike emotive nerves, lifting his stories of modern life to affecting, powerful heights.