Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ray Bonneville

So this past Sunday afternoon I went to see Ray Bonneville at The Saxon Pub.  I had heard one of his songs on KUTX quite a while back, and thought it was pretty good, so maybe a year ago or more I downloaded his most recent album, Bad Man's Blood.  I liked it.  Really liked it.  It was one of those albums that was so good that you end up asking yourself, "Where did this guy come from, and how come I haven't heard of him before?"  They said on the radio that he lived in Austin, but he had just never been on my radar.
Well, it turns out that the guy grew up in Canada and has lived pretty much all over the place.  He's lived in Boston, New Orleans, and, I believe, Nashville, among other places.  I think he mentioned at his gig that he owned a home in Arkansas, as well.
I looked him up at the time after downloading his record, but all of his upcoming tour dates were in other countries.  I can't remember exactly where he was touring, but his upcoming shows were in places like Japan or Australia or something for all of his upcoming dates.  It sounds like Ray has spent a lot of time on the road.
Annnyway, I'd listened to Bad Man's Blood and really enjoyed it and put the idea of seeing Bonneville live on the back burner.

So I was excited to see him pop up on the lineup at Saxon on a Sunday afternoon.  I like afternoon gigs on the weekends, anyway, because they tend to be smaller and more intimate, with more serious fans in attendance (at night time shows you get people who are just "going out" and will talk all the way through a set, but in the afternoon it's mostly just music lovin' folks).

I'm glad to say that the show was really great.  Bonneville played guitar and some sort of amplified stompbox foot percussion thing to hold down a simple beat.  He had his friend Jeff Arsenault sitting in with him on drums.
Bonneville's guitar playing is really interesting and a little unique.  He's a finger picker, and he sort of holds down a strong walking bass line with his thumb while strumming, rolling, and playing accent notes with his fingers.  He generally has a pretty mellow tone, but the upper notes are clear enough to ring out and sound distinct.  Altogether, given the guitar technique, vocals, and foot percussion, Bonneville, all by himself, sounds almost like a full band. 
I'd never heard Jeff Arsenault before, but he was a really good drummer.  Rock solid, creative, subtle, and, perhaps most importantly, keenly aware of how to make his drum parts fit into the mood and melody of the songs.  He played on a small, simple, kit, but his ability to do things like roll with one hand while playing accents and fills with the other really made him sound, at times, like he was playing on a much larger set.  I was impressed.
Ray Bonneville has a deep, smokey kind of voice.  In a way, it sort of conjures up a bit of Leonard Cohen mixed with Bob Dylan.  Except maybe a little more in tune.
Many of his songs have a somewhat slower, but travelling quality.
His lyrics tell tales and paint images.  Bonneville comes from a school of song crafting that doesn't shy away from telling fictional stories or parables.  He tells stories with a purpose, though- accounts of imagined people and events that ring with the emotional truths of his own life.  Before playing "Cemetery Road", Bonneville gave some insights into his writing process.  He spoke of how, although he had written the song as a fictional work about a woman in a cemtery, the song, in truth, dealt with feelings that Bonneville had experienced following the death of his own father- a man with whom he had never really gotten along.
So Bonneville breaks a little  with the recent trend amongst singer songwriters in which they pride themselves on boldly putting their lives on display, earnestly throwing themselves out there without much obfuscation or pretense.  But Bonneville's tradition, a tradition that involves metaphor and allegory, might in some ways seem slightly more poetic.  The specific of the personal, after all, can distract from the universal relatability of archetypal symbols.  By writing metaphor and fiction, Bonneville might not be writing songs in which he puts his own life transparently on display, but he might be writing songs that his listeners can more easily relate to their own experiences.

So here are a few videos that I shot. 

I think this song was called "Mile Marker 41"

"Bad Man's Blood"

Shooting these video clips was a new thing for me.  I'm not sure it's a good idea.  The little microphone on my iPhone definitely doesn't do justice to the quality of the sound.  On the other hand, it sort of illustrates some of the things that I've been talking about.  I'm not sure yet.  Maybe I'll go back to just shooting pictures.

Anyway, I really, really enjoyed Bonneville's set.  He played a song called "I Am The Big Easy" which was about post-Katrina New Orleans.  Tremendously good song.  I read up about it after the set and found out that it won a 2009 award from Folk alliance International as their song of the year.  Very moving, I thought.

So....  GO SEE RAY BONNEVILLE!!!!  He's really good.  It sounds like he's sort of a rolling stone, but we're fortunate to have him living in our town and playing some shows.  He's got a new album coming out, I think in April or sometime thereabouts, so hopefully he'll be brushing up on some material around town before hitting the road to support the album.  Check him out!

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