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Live Review and Photos: A.A. Bondy, September 29, 2011, Bootleg Theater – Los Angeles, CA

Photos by Philip Cosores

It seems like there’s a certain quality that you have to have to be a singer-songwriter in the ilk of A.A. Bondy and be able to pull it off, especially live. It’s something that doesn’t come from merely being a good songwriter, but from life experience. It’s what some might call “authenticity,” and Bondy certainly has it; it’s in his mannerisms, in the twang in his voice, in the way he drawls and carries himself. It’s a quality that led one person that I talked to after the show to say that Bondy “seems like a tortured soul.”

This is something that opening act Nik Freitas doesn’t have yet. I already had a passing knowledge of Freitas’ work as a member of the Mystic Valley Band (of ‘Conor Oberst and…’ fame) and it seems his solo material doesn’t mark too much of a change from that sound, especially when playing with his bandmates. This was emphasised when he played “Big Black Nothing” from the Mystic Valley Band’s album Outer South and it fit in comfortably alongside his other material. Freitas was at his best when playing solo, and under the Bootleg’s spotlight he gave us a glimpse of the qualities that he has that led him into becoming a performer. For one song he took off his guitar and played piano instead, and the song’s theme about people in the audience’s face being lit up when reading their phone may sound goofy or gimmicky, but it was actually rather beautiful. Freitas told us that when he originally moved to LA eight-years ago, he worked as a TV delivery man – not exactly the kind of life that generally leads to becoming a strong songwriter, but he has some talent, and under the wing of A.A. Bondy he might learn a thing or two that could press him onwards to bigger things.

Bondy appeared onstage sporting a cap and sunglasses and accompanied by three fellow bandmates. Without word they eased straight into “The Heart Is Willing,” the opening track from Believers; A.A. Bondy’s recently released album. The mood was set immediately; helped by the simple graphics projected onto the back canvas of slowly drifting clouds or undulating waves, the atmosphere had a slight stir to it as the music swirled through the room. Bondy would later inform us that this band was more or less a newly put together one, which was rather surprising considering how well they seemed to have melded. For the first portion of the set they played through Believers in full, flowing beautifully and sometimes not even stopping between songs and just allowing them to drift from one to another. At any point when it felt like things might get a little too slow the tension was re-seized by a more upbeat track like “The Twist” and the crowd was sucked in once more. Sometimes his vocals would become just another part of the mix, and then he’d surprise with a particularly strong and heartfelt moment like “Believers.”

Following the conclusion of the Believers set, Bondy and co. did some crowd pleasing by going into his back catalogue. They kicked off with “Mightiest of Guns” from Bondy’s prior album When The Devil’s Loose, which saw drums eschewed in favour of a pedal steel, which truly signified a return to the more country-esque sounds of his past material. The crowd was also pleased to hear “A Slow Parade” and “When The Devil’s Loose,” which have a much warmer sound relative to the Believers material, which is probably more what people would have wanted to hear when it’s approaching midnight and the booze is starting to set in.

Bondy and band left the stage and the show seemed to be over. but nobody was leaving. The lights had half-heartedly come on and the music had started playing quietly over the PA, but everyone stayed and politely demanded an encore. After what seemed like five or ten minutes of this state of flux, with the venue not quite sure whether he would return or not, Bondy did re-appear – this time on his own – to perform what seemed to be an unplanned encore. Having already started the trudge through his back catalogue with the end of the main set, he completed it by playing a trio of songs from his debut solo album American Hearts. The performances were the most emotionally charged of the night, starting with the heavy “Vice Rag,” whose downright honesty about the love of cocaine and heroin left made the atmosphere sort of uncomfortable, but mostly compassionate and enraptured. Bondy finished with “Black Rain, Black Rain” and “Rapture – Sweet Rapture,” in which he admits that he “doesn’t want to talk about Jesus” he “just wants to see his face.”

These last two songs bring us back around to the question of authenticity. For some artists lines like these might seem hokey, but with Bondy you can see it in his face and hear it in the way he emotes: he’s been there, down to these low points and although he’s got through them, they’re still a part of him. And when he performs he brings us all into his mind and makes us feel it, and that is something quite special.

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