The big questions at Friday night's A.A. Bondy show were: Drunk? Hungover? Migraine? Crippling anxiety/depression? Some combination thereof? There was something amiss about Bondy's physical and/or emotional state during his puzzling performing at Stickyz. Poke around online and you’ll find plenty of rave reviews of the alt-folk singer’s emotionally-wrought live shows. So I was left wondering (along with several concertgoers around me) what made the performance so lackluster. But more about that in a jiffy.
Seattle band Gold Leaves opened with songs that proved charming to this first-time listener. The band's grungy, stereotypical Seattle-style stage presence wasn’t much to look at, so the first song “Honeymoon” came as a surprise.
Folky and bright, the tune mixed steel guitar with '60s-sounding harmonies and simple, cymbal-heavy drum beats. Other songs played up a country and folk vibe, but lacked dynamics and energy. The lead singer’s echo-y microphone effects could have been enhancing, but coupled with a low volume, it only made it impossible to hear any lyrics. Still, the set was pleasant and steady, and garnered almost as much applause as Bondy's, even though twice as many people filled the audience for the main act.
So what was the deal with Bondy? I’m still not sure. He kicked off the set with the opening song on his newest album, “Believers.” “The Heart is Willing” moves like a ghost-driven freight train into your head and pounds and haunts there for days. That is, if you listen to the recorded version. Live, it was more like a train wreck. The sound was almost unbearably bad, and they were scrambling to fix it. Bondy couldn’t hear himself and fell flat on most notes. Even though the sound got incrementally better throughout the show, it seemed like the band never fully recovered.
Bondy’s usually gravelly, but soothing voice (he sounded an awful lot like David Gray) dropped harshly in the mic. Five songs in, Bondy broke his speaking silence and asked for the lights to be turned down on the stage. “It’s much too bright in here,” he said. (This is where my migraine theory comes in…) It’s the most he interacted with anyone throughout the entire show. Then he ended the 12-song set with the title track from his 2009 album, “When the Devil’s Loose,” and walked off the stage with barely a nod.
A few (surely drunk) fans yelled for an encore, but most telling was the crowd’s reactions during the show. The noisy crowd was a few shouts away from drowning out the band. It’s clear that these were fans who came specifically to see Bondy perform, yet they were more interested in their conversations, like some sort of bizarre rerun of what happened last time Bondy played Little Rock. The band was background music, much like on the television shows ("Friday Night Lights," "House", "Bones") that have featured his songs. Whatever threw Bondy off his game on Friday, I just hope he comes back soon to show us what he can really do.