“I’m the perfect little foil for the prognosticators of doom,” sang a buoyant Bruce Hornsby on “Circus on the Moon,” a song about (among other things) his instrumental excellence. That’s not a bad self-assessment. Since putting a few songs on the charts in the ’80s, Hornsby has been as experimental as any mainstream rock star, throwing elements of jazz, electronic music, traditional country and leftfield pop into his songs, and collaborating with anybody able to keep up with his exuberant piano arpeggios. This is no way to remain in heavy rotation, and Hornsby’s cheery restlessness probably cost him a shot at the sort of middlebrow permanence that many of his peers chased. Yet Hornsby’s cult audience is a ferocious one, and by excising the casual fans, he’s been free to focus on thrilling the dedicated. Many of those live in the Garden State, where Hornsby has a large following. The last time Hornsby stopped in Jersey — just a few months ago — he shared top billing with bluegrass mandolinist Ricky Skaggs, and the combo reworked some of his best-known songs. On Saturday at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, he’ll pare his material back even farther: he’ll be accompanied only by percussionist Sonny Emory, a frequent collaborator who has appeared on his last few albums. Hornsby solo is a dice roll that generally comes out a winner; liberated from the restrictions of a band, he goes wherever his muse takes him. All attendees at this show receive a copy of Solo Concerts, a Hornsby live double-disc set.
Virtuosity, as Hornsby learned early in his career, is only a means to an end in pop, and sometimes precipitates as much resentment as appreciation. I don’t know if our local primitivists hold the instrumental accomplishment of the members of Owel against the band, but I know this: the Jersey group isn’t nearly as celebrated as it ought to be. The group’s self-titled album aligned Owel with orchestral pop-rock acts like Lydia and Deas Vail, but the creativity of the playing — particularly the drumming — recalled older traditions. “The Unforgiving Tide,” the centerpiece of a consistently beautiful album, has the sweep and ambition of early Genesis. So lush, polished and layered is Owel that it’s hard to imagine how the musicians approximate its grandeur in concert, but I’ve heard that they do, and I’m looking forward to finding out for myself when the group plays at Asbury Lanes on Friday night.
A somewhat better-traveled gang of art-rockers is running wild in the Garden State this week: Asia pulls into the Mayo Performing Arts Center on Thursday and the Bergen Performing Arts Center on Saturday. Originally conceived as a refugee center for musicians from long-running rock groups facing declining commercial prospects, Asia didn’t seem built to last. Yet three-fourths of the original lineup hung in there for the band’s first decade. By Aria in 1994, the only founder left was synth player Geoffrey Downes, who first made his name in the Buggles and who has made a few trips through the revolving door of Yes. Downes put the old gang back together in the mid-’00s, and the outfit that’ll rock Englewood and Morristown this week features King Crimson veteran John Wetton on bass and lead vocals and Carl Palmer, who put the P in ELP, behind the kit. Alas, the missing Asian is the most talented one: the daring Steve Howe, a perennial dark horse contender for the title of Best Rock Guitarist Ever. His place has been taken by young Sam Coulson, who plays on Gravitas, Asia album No. 14. Worry not, attendee: most of the setlist is dedicated to the early hits. That means you’re guaranteed renditions of the proggy “Sole Survivor,” souped-up ballad “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” wonderfully bombastic “Only Time Will Tell” and “Heat of the Moment,” the quintessential early-’80s arena-rock number.
On “Volcano,” Robbie Maxx growls about repping the ‘Wood, and he means Westwood, a Bergen County town that’s mostly quiet. (Well, as long as he isn’t there making a racket.) Flipping Kendrick Lamar, he calls himself a mad kid in a good city — but he’s a budding talent, and they’re lucky to have him. Maxx shared top billing on “Volcano” with Lil Wonda, a scion of the Duplessis family that has been deeply involved in Jersey rap since the ’90s (Lil Wonda’s dad Jerry Duplessis produced and played for the Fugees and Wyclef Jean). Robbie’s a family man, too: his dad, a veteran musician himself, accompanies him on drums. This Thursday, he takes the act to Mexicali Live in Teaneck, which has become the rapper’s base of operations. He’s almost certain to kick “The Intro,” his most introspective verse, and one on which he puts his growing confidence to good narrative use.