Under a snow cloud that seemed to concentrate solely over Ann Arbor (and seemed to want my car as a sacrifice), in a hole in the wall bar-cum-club, a rabble of music lovers who seemed to span every age range from 18 to 40 and possibly beyond gathered around a small stage to hear what Willy Mason and A.A. Bondy had to offer.
Thinking of Willy Mason, the word that comes to mind is solid. His songwriting is solid, his guitar-playing is solid and his voice is solid. But the previous two times I had seen him play, he seemed to lack an indefinable something. Oomph, chutzpah or some other slightly onomatopoeiaic word. This time, he seems to have found the road to that indefinable something. While Mason is still more than a little quiet in between songs, the songs themselves popped with a vibrancy that had been missing before. “Pickup Truck”, “If It’s the End”, “Where the Humans Eat” and “Hard Hand to Hold” all sparkled and received deserved appreciation from the audience.
There was a sweet moment as Mason waited for some friends to come help him out on stage. He said, “We need some filler.” To which a voice from the audience called out, “Oxygen!” “Oxygen?” Mason replied. “We can do that.” Then a shy smile lit up his face, and it was a moment when you could see in his joy how hard it can be to be The Opening Guy, just waiting for someone to know who you are and like what you do.
The friends who came to help were, of course, A.A. Bondy and his bandmates Macey Taylor and Ben Lester, and they helped Mason close his set with a beautifully filled out song – a song to which I don’t recall any of the words and cannot even guess at the title. But trust me, it was good, and Mason was obviously happy to be joined onstage by good friends. He left the stage to the sound of cheers.
Here is what A.A. Bondy is not: a romantic troubadour, a lonesome drifter who just hopped off a freight train, a sepia-toned ghost who has just stepped out of a bygone era. Though he might be a ramblin’ man. And with his long-legged, wide stance, he looks like he could have just gotten off a horse.
Here is what A.A. Bondy is: just a guy. A good guy with a lot of talent, passion, skill and the ability to get up in front of crowds of strangers night after night and do his best.
As a member of an A.A. Bondy audience, here is what you cannot do: expect to hear songs delivered just as you heard them on his records, see one show and think you’ve seen all the artillery he has stashed in his armory, fail to be surprised. It would also be good if you didn’t talk while he was playing. (I have been fortunate enough to have been surrounded by respectful and mostly quiet audiences at the two Bondy shows I have been to.)
While both of A.A. Bondy’s solo albums are beautiful creations (and they both mean a lot to me), if you’ve only heard his albums, you only have part of the picture of who he is as a musician. As an artist, Bondy posesses an admirable confidence in his music. He is not precious about his work and has the ability to stretch out in his songs, to add here, take away there, turn left instead of right.
He opened the set with what well may be his best song to date, “Mightiest of Guns”. The gentle finger-picking of the original recording was accompanied by a beautiful swoon of pedal steel supplied by Ben Lester, adding power to an already moving song. “There’s a Reason” was given a sonicly diverse treatment and crescendoed with passion again and again. Bondy played the most beautiful bit of harmonica I’ve ever heard from him (or anyone, for that matter) on “Black Rain, Black Rain”. “When the Devil’s Loose” was transformed from an almost Radiohead-like exercise in ambience to a hip-shaking honky tonk (during which Bondy shouted out, “Disco ball!” to get the mirrored ball in the center of the room spinning). Electric guitar gave “Rapture (Sweet Rapture)” a certain elegance. Bondy’s cover for the night, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – a song well-suited to Bondy’s smoke and honey voice both in style and content – even received a little improvisational picking. And there was more – “Vice Rag”, “To the Morning”, “Killed Myself When I was Young”, “Oh the Vampyre, “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing”, “A Slow Parade” – each with a certain bang, a certain nuance, that stopped you in your tracks for a moment, leaving you unable to do anything but marvel.
What, for me, was the highlight of the show – in a set where every song was a highlight – was the closing “The Coal Hits the Fire”. Again playing with sonic dynamics, at one point, the band dropped out completely, leaving only Bondy’s voice driving the song through, his eyes closed and his fingers playing in the air as if pulling the notes from somewhere just out of sight. Then the band came back in and took the song to a thrilling cacophony of hard and heavy sound that felt like a sharp punch to the solar plexus before mellowing back into the finger-picked guitar melody. And invigorating note to end a show that played up and down the emotional scale.
The one thing I did miss in this show that had been abundant at the A.A. Bondy show I had seen previously at Musica in Akron, Ohio, was Bondy’s between song banter. Despite the somber presence he can sometimes convey, Bondy is very clever, very bright and very fucking funny. There was a story about the time he had played the Blind Pig two years before. “There weren’t as many of you,” Bondy told the crowd after thanking them and telling them how much he appreciated the turnout, “and you weren’t very nice.” As a matter of fact, another band who was there went backstage and drank all of Bondy’s gang’s beer. “So to recreate that night, most of you need to leave, and then the rest of you be assholes and drink all our beer.”
Side note: A good thing to know if you’re ever going to the Blind Pig: Hit the ATM beforehand. As the posters around the venue and the T-shirt on the bartender will tell you, charmingly accentuated by the infamous shot of Johnny Cash flipping the bird, the Blind Pig is CASH ONLY. They don’t mention this on their website, so it’s a good thing my plastic-dependent self moneyed up beforehand just in case.