WC last saw Karla Bonoff at The Quiet Knight in Chicago. No cover, two drink minimum. In WC’s memory, the late Steve Goodman joined her on stage for a couple of songs. But that was a long time ago, and memory is a funny thing.
But Bonoff has written a number of excellent tunes, so when Andy Byron brought her to the Cinder Winery here in Boise as a part of his Americana series, WC and Mrs. WC were in the crowd.
Maybe the most stunning thing is that Bonoff looks and sounds exactly the same. Maybe fame has passed her by, but time seems to have passed her by, too.
Her lovely voice is also unchanged. And for an artist most readers have likely never heard of, she has a terrific songbook. As just one example, Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville won a Grammy in 1991 for the song, “All My Life.” That’s a Karla Bonoff song. Bonoff is a singer-songwriter who found success mostly with other people having hits with the songs she wrote.
Bonoff was accompanied by the very talented guitarist Nina Gerber. WC hadn’t heard of Gerber before Bonoff’s show, but WC was seriously impressed with her playing.
Bonoff’s set list included an excellent cover of Jackson Browne’s “Something Fine,” her contribution to the 2014 Jackson Browne tribute album, and progressed through a nice sampling of her 40-plus years of songwriting. She included a few of her songs that others made into hits, and, in the encore, her one Top 40 hit, “Personally.”
Bonoff’s wide songwriting style ranges from torch songs to ballads to blues. Her lyrics can be wonderfully sweet – “Daddy’s Girl,” written for her father – to poignant love songs to biting social critiques. Her songs and her performance are every bit as impressive as, say, Lucinda Williams’. Her singing is far superior. Yet Williams has found world-wide fame, and Bonoff remains mostly unknown. WC has long understood that he shouldn’t expect “fair,” but every now and then there’s a harsh reminder.
Bonoff closed the show with “The Water Is Wide,” a Scottish ballad from the 1600s, popularized by the late Pete Seeger and a staple of the folk revival. Her version was exquisite, with Gerber’s understated electric guitar and Bonoff’s crystal-clear voice. It’s a song about fading love and regret, but shaded with the optimism of the chorus:
The water is wide, I cannot get over
Neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I
Bonoff told the crowd she had been singing the song since she was 13 years old; it still carries a punch. And it’s a decent coda for her career.
A great show by a fine artist. Bonoff doesn’t tour a lot, but if you have the chance to see her, do so.