BROOKLYN, NY — Bruce Hornsby, more than 30 years into a diverse and decorated career, continues to challenge himself and his audience. Touring in support of his experimental new album, “Absolute Zero,” he stopped at the cozy National Sawdust in Brooklyn (capacity 350) for two shows in April to share the sparse yet angular and complex new material — and put some of his classic songs through that prism — with the assistance of his backing band, The Noisemakers, and yMusic, a modern NYC chamber sextet.
Hornsby and his Noisemakers started the April 30 concert with the new record’s “Cast Off.” “I guess, it’s terrible, but don’t feel so bad,” he sang over jittery rhythms. Guitarist Gibb Droll sang the harmonies recorded on the album by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — the multigenerational musicians have become frequent collaborators — leading into a wistful instrumental section, with players adding and subtracting their parts. The song clocked in at about 8 minutes.
Hornsby continued with the “Absolute Zero” selections “White Noise,” with sumptuous harmony vocals, and “Fractals” before yMusic joined him and The Noisemakers. The sextet added some playful dissonance to another new one, “The Blinding Light of Day.” Virginia native Hornsby sang of “our town’s secret” and worse, “the secret nightmares of our town,” name-dropping Jim Crow and Harper Lee.
Seven songs in, Hornsby finally revisited the familiar: “The End of the Innocence,” the 1989 plaintive hit he cowrote with Don Henley. yMusic provided a cozy pad of strings and Hornsby took a meandering piano solo, changing the arrangement just enough to keep things fresh. He countered with his undisputed biggest hit, “The Way It Is,” which put him on the map in the mid ’80s. He made room in the anthem of social commentary for his long introductory solo, a JT Thomas keyboard solo, a full-band funk workout and a game of cat and mouse between yMusic and the Noisemakers’ mandolin player. The larger ensemble darted in and out of the song’s theme, stripping down to mini-lineups of piano/drums/yMusic and expanding back into the full band. Sometimes dizzying in its complexity — Hornsby referred to sheet music all night — but ultimately enjoyable, the performance was emblematic of Hornsby’s career, which has balanced an innate tunefulness with a sophisticated and restless musicality.
“Resting Place,” from 1998’s “Spirit Trail” — Hornsby’s best album — was straightforward. Hornsby stood a few times, surveying the scene, giving the Noisemakers (yMusic left the stage before the song) some room to stretch out. Thomas took a cool organ solo and the band locked back into the theme as Hornsby’s piano tiptoed back in without dominating.
The band trimmed down to a trio — Hornsby on dulcimer with fiddle and washboard — for a three-song segment including the very dark “The Black Rats of London.”
With the full Noisemakers and yMusic returning, Hornsby changed the key of his hit “Mandolin Rain,” imbuing the song with even more sadness than the original. He ended the set with “I’ll Take You There (Misty),” which he introduced as a cowrite with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (Hornsby is a longtime collaborator with the Dead and its various side projects). It’s one of “Absolute Zero’s” more jubilant moments, and it was a nice way to bookend the show.
Hornsby and the musicians encored with “Rainbow’s Cadillac,” a favorite from his back catalog — which worked its way into the Dead’s live rotation when he was a touring member — but the bandleader, always the tinkerer, said this was a version inspired by “my hero, Leon Russell.” With a foot-stomping rave-up that sent the crowd to the Brooklyn street with a bounce in their step, Hornsby again drove home the point that you can challenge and entertain at the same time.
yMusic, who is known for performances with Paul Simon, including his farewell show in Queens last summer, opened the evening with a collection of originals, classics and a song by Sufjan Stevens.
Hornsby and The Noisemakers will perform July 12 at the Pocono Mountain Event Center in Mount Pocono, Pa.