Near the middle of his set, A. A. Bondy thanked a tightly packed crowd for putting up with extended breaks between songs. I thought, “Wait, why wouldn’t we put up with it?” As did many other people, who talked back toward the stage praising Bondy, and rightfully so. His studio work is soulful and mesmerizing, but live, everything is taken to a new level, especially with the intimacy of a venue like the Rock & Roll Hotel.
But let’s backtrack for a moment, to talk about opener, Gold Leaves. They’re a grungy-looking band with scraggly beards and hoodies, but their music is extremely sunny and poppy. They connected with crowd quickly as they worked their way through tracks from their latest album, The Ornament, with singer Grant Olsen pausing in between songs to remark on the tightness of the crowd. Reverb drenched Olsen’s voice and the pedal steel guitar of his band-mate, and though the songs were all somewhat quiet (something about their looks made you want them to rock the f*&% out once or twice) I was impressed nonetheless.
After a quick break, the house lights went down again leaving only a bright orange beam directed at the second guitarist. Projected on screen behind the band were videos of waves and static, creating a sense of intimacy in the somewhat sweltering darkness. Bondy stepped onstage wearing a worn baseball cap, sweatshirt and carrying a backpack. Chewing a toothpick, he looked determined, stringing out his pedals and giving commands on how set up gear. That energy transferred into the first song (also the first track on his new album, Believers) “The Heart Is Willing,” a tense stomp over which he delivered vocals like warnings against monsters that lurk at night.
About a third of the way through the set, it began to get extremely hot (evidenced especially by the sweat all over the band’s faces). Its worth noting because I discovered later that a woman had passed out from the heat (which was quickly fixed by opening the doors to a breeze, btw) but it may well have been from simply swooning While the set wasn’t high-energy, it was definitely mesmerizing to watch. Bondy’s soft croon and his mastery of making his guitar go from soft and shimmery to balls-out rocking distorted just with the way he hits the strings added to his wonderful presence. The entire crowd was quiet and paid close attention, occasionally singing along on songs like “A Slow Parade” (by far the best song of the show for me) which went from hushed, sad march to a distorted power ballad of sorts, guitars crashing on top of each other.
Ending his set proper with a particularly soulful rendition of “When The Devil’s Loose,” the title track from his last album, Bondy returned for a solo encore that was plagued by sound problems (“motherf*&^ing digital sh$#,” could be heard coming from the stage) but despite the tech failures he managed to end the show on a strong note by bringing out the rest of his band for one last, sound problems be damned, number
Thankfully it isn’t the stage or the room, or even the sound system that makes an A.A. Bondy show special; it’s his impeccable stage presence. And it certainly made the difference for this show. Audience members were light-hearted and encouraging as Bondy apologized for pausing too long between songs (his remarks on starting the wrong song and having to retune: “wait, what?... son of a bitch!”), and Bondy in turn fed off of the energy the crowd was giving him.
In short, Bondy is a particularly rare kind of artist: one who can put on a great show and connect with his audience without being loud or showy. He just puts enough emotion and energy into it that it’s hard not to be impressed. I know I was.