LIVE: Karla Bonoff @ The Egg, 11/19/15

December 8th, 2015, 3:00 pm by Greg

Review by Steven Stock

Karla Bonoff’s performance at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre was short but very sweet. Alternating between acoustic guitar and piano, backed only by Nina Gerber’s exquisite guitar work, Bonoff sang beautifully. These spartan arrangements suited the intimate confessional tone of her songwriting far better than the slick studio sheen that L.A.’s finest session musicians slathered over her first two albums for Columbia in the late ’70s. Bonoff also effectively conveyed the ups and downs of her career as she introduced most songs, forging a connection with the appreciative audience.

As Bonoff recounted, “I grew up in L.A. in a really amazing time for the music business. There was music everywhere, especially up on the Sunset Strip. I’m not sure why my mom let me go up there — I don’t think she realized what was actually happening! But around the same time I was taking guitar lessons from a great musician — The Weavers’ Frank Hamilton. He taught in this little tiny guitar store in Hollywood called Barney Kessel’s Music World in a little cubicle in the back. He taught me all these really cool arrangements that The Weavers played.”

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When she was 16, Karla and her older sister Lisa were recommended to Elektra Records by Doors’ drummer John Densmore, and Bruce Botnick produced a demo for the duo. “When I was a teenager,” said Bonoff, “I spent a lot of time at the Troubadour, a little club Jackson (Browne) used to play. He was probably about 19 – I was 16 – and he’d already written some really incredible songs. I would sit up in the balcony and think ‘Wow, I wish I could write songs like that. I don’t want to go to college, I want to write songs like that.’ So he was really an inspiration, and he was really cute, too – all the girls loved him.”

Aside from Browne, Bonoff also met Kenny Edwards, Wendy Waldman and Andrew Gold at the Troubadour and with them subsequently formed the band Bryndle. The quartet recorded an album for A&M which was shelved, with only a 45rpm single released. Edwards and Gold were subsequently recruited by Linda Ronstadt.

Bonoff related what came next: “I was living in L.A. as a struggling songwriter in the mid-’70s, working in a cat kennel in Topanga Canyon cleaning out litter boxes. My friend Kenny Edwards was on the road playing bass with Linda Ronstadt. He would take cassettes of my songs to her, but they never really clicked. Then one day he decided to play this song (“Lose Again”) for her on guitar, his way. She got it! They learned my song, and she came out (at the Universal Ampitheatre in L.A.) and about midway through the set just sang the shit out of this song. Pardon my language! I knew at that moment that probably my days of cleaning litter boxes had come to an end.”

Ronstadt subsequently covered three Bonoff compositions on her 1976 classic Hasten Down the Wind, while Bonnie Raitt recorded “Home” for 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness. Signed to Columbia as a solo artist, Bonoff released three commercially successful albums from 1977 to 1982. Bonoff again: “I once lip-synced on the ‘Solid Gold’ show. It’s kind of an awful thing to lip-sync. The record companies used to make us do that – probably still do, I wouldn’t know! I don’t make myself lip-sync. We would go on these shows to promote our single – that was a black plastic thing we used to have in the caveman days.”

“So we did ‘Solid Gold’ and then we did Bandstand. I was talking to Dick Clark, and he looked just like he did when I was three! How is that possible? And then the third show we did was the cheesiest of the three: Merv. The guests on Merv were me, Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Richard Simmons. Actually, Richard was cool – I had a really good time hanging out with him in the make-up room.”

“Once upon a time I did have a hit single, and of course I didn’t write it,” recounted Bonoff. “‘Personally’ was a song that Glenn Frey of the Eagles played for me one day – he’s a great collector of obscure R&B songs that nobody’s heard. This one was cut by a woman named Jackie Moore in the ’70s. When I made this record, it had horns and strings and the Eagles singing background vocals, so we never really played it live. We didn’t feel like we could reproduce that but – (laughs) I don’t really care anymore! That’s the good thing about being where I am now. If only I didn’t care back then!”

After a five-year layoff in the mid-’80s Bonoff recorded New World, a less star-studded but even more personal and affecting effort. Bonoff again: “I wrote ‘All My Life’ for a movie (“Fire with Fire”), but they didn’t use it. Then I put it on an album, and the record company went out of business. Then Linda Ronstadt called me and said, ‘I’m gonna do this album with Aaron Neville (Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind) and we need some songs. Do you have anything?’ I said, ‘I’ve got a perfect song for you. It’s cursed for me, but you can go for it.’ So they recorded it, had a huge hit and won a Grammy. I stayed home and watched it on television.”

Bryndle finally got a second chance at cutting a debut record in 1995, and that eponymous effort was followed by House of Silence in 2002. Both bassist Edwards and guitarist Gerber play on Bonoff’s 2007 two-CD Live. In 2010 Bonoff was at The Egg on a double-bill with Janis Ian. Last year she recorded “Something Fine” for Looking into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne, which also boasts contributions from Don Henley, Raitt, J.D. Souther and Bruce Springsteen.

Bonoff’s 15-song, 80-minute set at The Egg was consistently excellent. “Trouble Again” (“a song I wrote about all the icky guys I used to go out with”) was an early highlight, up-tempo in an evening dominated by ballads and utilizing Bonoff’s dry sense of humor. Gerber’s pithy electric guitar solo was worthy of Richard Thompson, honest to God! “New World” displayed Bonoff’s piano chops to good advantage – nothing flashy, just gorgeous. “One day this song just floated out of the air – some songs just float out of the sky and onto the paper. I wish that would happen more often!”

Bringing things full circle, as artists like to do, Bonoff closed her set with “The Water Is Wide,” one of the songs that Frank Hamilton (who wrote it with Pete Seeger) taught her at Barney Kessel’s Music World 45 years ago. “When I went to make my second album,” recalled Bonoff, “I decided to record this song and I was lucky enough to have James Taylor and J.D. Souther play on it. Well, they’re here tonight,” she said playfully. They weren’t, and thanks to the caliber of Bonoff’s performance, no one missed them.

I Can’t Hold On
Trouble Again
Something Fine
(The Heart Is) Like a Compass
New World
Wild Heart of the Young
Lose Again
Please Be the One
Falling Star
Let Your Love Carry Me Home
All My Life
Someone to Lay Down Beside Me
The Water Is Wide