Having been raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota before moving around Minnesota, it comes of little surprise that Haley Bonar comes from a folk / country background. However, since relocating to the indie rock heartland Portland in Oregon the music on her more recent releases has taken on a harder edge and I was keen to hear how this would play out live.
Bonar is hitting the UK to tour last year’s fantastic album Impossible Dream and she has filled The Bodega with an eager yet self-conscious crowd. The set is dominated by the new material and starts with the drum into of the mechanical sounding Jealous Girls, to be followed by bass led Your Mom Is Right and the explosive firecracker Stupid Face.
Looking at the stage there is a small arsenal of various pedals surrounding the guitarists which are jacked into the pair of Fender Jaguars giving the appearance of your typical alternative band which may seem at odds with her earlier work. But as Bonar and her band begin to play it becomes immediately obvious that her adoption of a brash indie rock sound has certainly paid off but it certainly has not seen her lose all sense of identity. The folk inflections in the voice remain and with the pleasing use of slide guitar means that she has created her very own musical space. It taps into her country background but now it all feels a bit harder, a bit faster.
As the set progresses through the songs Better Than Me, Hometown and No Sensitive Man, I allow myself to sink deep into the songs. Haunting guitars are draped over the sold structure of exquisitely written songs that hold up her gentle yet somewhat world weary voice and it becomes apparent this is a truly special show.
The applause between songs is ready and quick, although the audience is slow to act when invited to participate in an abortive Q&A session. Bonar looks out to the audience and asks; “Does anyone and to ask me something?”. Eventually a sole voice bizarrely replies with a Hitchcock reference “What are the 39 steps?” which she answers, with some understandable confusions; “I don't know that”.
Undeterred she tries a new approach, trying the safe approach of mentioning the city name stating “Nottingham… I've never been to this town”. Typically, the mere mention of the location brings at least one cheer but sadly this time she falls victim to British awkwardness and is met by silence. Laughing at the response, or lack thereof, she brushes it off with sarcastic good humour saying “Oh great. I'll be back.” The crowd cheers, breaking the sense of tension, before they fly through Last War then slowing it all down for From A Cage.
Their performance takes on added emotive resonance when she picks up the electro acoustic during Skynz. Looking somewhat more confident with the small-scale guitar, the folk sound works well with her voice and adds a wonderful contrast to the sound of the full band. I Can Change then follows and the audience visibly lean in further. The set was far from difficult or flat, but from here on in the songs truly take off and I can’t quite help laugh at the irony when the melancholic yet resplendent song Kill The Fun gets the biggest cheer of the set so far.
Bonar switches back to the Jaguar for the two most brash songs before the mock ending. They hurtle through Called You Queen before the band blasts off with Kismet Kill. Easily my favourite single of 2016, this song explores building resentment of growing older and the inevitable disappointment that comes with experience. Bonar performance brims with confidence, safe in the knowledge that it is a killer song she is free to explore the wistful melancholy and fatalistic stoicism in her performance as the song shimmers so brightly, thanks to the darkness that tinges both the lyrics and sound.
Returning on stage alone with the electro acoustic in hand, you know it's going to be special. She invites the surrounding crowd to make suggestions of what they would like to hear which, given the previous participation failure, comes mercifully quick. “Someone say Eat For Free? Good. That's what I was planning to play.” And boy, does she play it. The song shines with an angelic beauty whilst conveying a sense of world weary melancholia, creating that special microcosm only the truly gifted can produce when performing alone.
And then the band appear for the final number; a cover of Whole Wild World by Wreckless Eric which is apparently the second time they have played it. Not that you could tell despite the false start after the guitarist starts in the wrong note as it works as a wonderfully rousing finish to cap off the night.