Karla Bonoff


Karla Bonoff - 2500 x 1910

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Karla Bonoff - BW

(photo by Erin Fiedler)



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CONCERT REVIEW: Songbird with a golden pen

Veteran singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff, longtime Santa Barbaran, returns for one of her periodic Lobero concerts, and tells a tuneful story.


August 21, 2016 12:33 AM


karla bonoffFor the second song in her latest show at the Lobero Theatre on Thursday, singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff zoomed in on an essence of her periodic appearances at this venue. The song and theme: "Home." For years, Ms. Bonoff has lived in Santa Barbara, meaning she can "drive 15 minutes" to play the Lobero, itself a kind of embracing home of a space for what she does.


In her two-hour-plus show, where she played guitar and piano with confidence and offered up warm, sure, unpretentious lyrics with nimble guitarist Nina Gerber by her side as her ally/"band," Ms. Bonoff amply conveyed what she does, and also a sense of who she is and where she came from. While her songs tend to be less cut from the confessional cloth of songwriting than a more general, broadly poetic angle, a Karla Bonoff show can seem like a this-is-your-life narrative, replete with anecdotes from her 40-plus years and landscape in the song world and provocative tales from the road and the strange, elusive, muse-chasing existence of a songwriter.


Introducing her version of Jackson Browne's "Something Fine" (recorded on a recent Browne tribute album), she talked about how his generosity and support in the '70s, and invitation for her to open on a tour, helped launch her career and self-confidence as a live performer. A singularly important figure in Ms. Bonoff's story is Linda Ronstadt. Cover versions of her best-known song, "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me," and the earlier "Lose Again" helped to secure the then-struggling songwriter's ranking and personal touch in the larger musical world. In fact, the Ronstadt/ Bonoff connection is so strong that their personalities can fuse, probably the reason why an audience member shouted out a request for "Love is a Rose," a Ronstadt hit. "I know," joked Ms. Bonoff, "we blur together. Maybe you're thinking of my song, 'Rose in the Garden.' And there was that song, opening the concert's second set.


From a more internal perspective, she told the audience in this expanded living room-like setting that she was going through a 10-year writer's block when suddenly the song "New World" (title song of her 1988 album) appeared before her, like a vision of renewal. Her unplugged rocker of a song "Trouble Again" was described as a "song about all the jerks I went out with in the '70s," and we also learned that Goodbye My Friend" was an ode to her late cat, Tex, and other cats, living and otherwise.


She has written many classic songs in a pop idiom that borrows from folk without delving deep into that language, songs such as her gleaming concert-opener "If He's Ever Near," the lovely "Falling Star," and the fetchingly hooky "Tell Me Why," turned into a hit by Wynonna. If that song leaned in the country direction of her musical vocabulary, Ms. Bonoff's tune "Restless Nights," the title song of her second album from 1978, is one of her many songs reminding us of a kinship to Carole King's musical pen and voice.


Through it all, Ms. Gerber supplied a supportive, delicately coloring instrumental voice in and around the singer's central presence, using the vibrato bar on her Stratocaster to good effect and injecting fluid, tasteful solos. She also gave the boss a break at one point, with a lilting, dexterous instrumental acoustic guitar arrangement of John Lennon's "Imagine."


Another former companion and musical partner for years stretching into decades was the gentle yet powerful entity Kenny Edwards, a guitarist-bassist-singer and all-around musical force to reckon with in the L.A. scene of the '70s. Mr. Edwards, who died in 2010 after a fight with cancer, also lived in Santa Barbara for many years, touring with the singer and sharing a history going back to their underrated folk-country-rock band Bryndle in the late '60s (briefly revived, twice over the decades).


An especially poignant subplot in this concert came when Ms. Bonoff called on one of Mr. Edwards' own songs, the touching "Way to Heaven," while playing his acoustic guitar in open tuning.


Even the encores at the Lobero — ironically, both covers — were chapters in the larger story of the Karla Bonoff saga. In the spread of her acclaimed series of albums, in a career about the power of the album, her one fluke hit single was the cover song "Personally," more of an R&B track than she would normally sing. She gamely sang a stripped-down old-school soul version, sneaking in jokey vocal tacks to let us know that she knows we know the song wasn't really squarely in her world.


Her world returned for the show's sweet, calming finale, the old folk/spiritual classic "The Water is Wide," harkening back to her early guitar studies as an eager youngster in Los Angeles with the Weavers' Frank Hamilton. With that soft landing of a finale, she had come back home, in another way, another time frame.

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