Former Duluth singer-songwriter Haley Bonar returned for a Valentine’s Day performance at Sacred Heart Music Center. The acoustics inside the popular music venue, however, may have sabotaged some of her most expressive songs. “I like having a lot of dynamics in a live performance, and so therefore I do that on the records, too,” she said in a recent interview with Emily McDermott of Interview.
A few more “dynamics,” i.e. musicians, would have helped the concert in several spots. When Bonar discarded the electric guitar in favor of the piano or acoustic guitar, we were better able to journey with her down the musical paths she has traveled since being discovered by Low’s Alan Sparhawk when she was 19.
Since releasing her first EP collection in 2002, called The Size of Planets, Bonar has released two Christmas albums, three more EPs and five studio albums. A quick sampling reveals not just her range, but the startling clarity of her storytelling, the sharpness of her memory, and her gift for merging image with truth.
At the Sacred Heart concert, Bonar played 16 numbers, nine from her newest CD, Impossible Dream. Before she began playing, she gave the audience a sneak preview—a monologue filled with images of youth, parenting, loss, and the natural world. The number of times the word “dirt” appeared suggests more than a close tie to nature; there were echoes of regret and starting over, of repulsion and a kind of sickness born of the propensity for bad decisions.
The monologue was broken into four parts: motherhood, dead boyfriends, forgiveness, and a song from Impossible Dream called “Hometown.” The ache of longing for home while out on the road was a current underneath such lines as, “the further I get, the deeper my regret.” There was a palpable tension between the electric guitar and the tenuous, airy reach of Bonar’s alto phrasing. Repeating the coda, “hometown goes wherever you go,” harkens all the way back to the 10 years it takes Odysseus to find his way back to Ithaca.
Bonar’s work at Sacred Heart felt a bit labored and remote, as if she were uncertain how these works of memory and vulnerability were being received. She has an unforgettable smile, which was evident during her “thank you” after each song and once when she struggled to recall how to start the next. With a sheepish grin, she asked, “You guys okay?” and launched into “Better Than Me” from Impossible Dream.
The surety of her observations about insecurity in an early relationship (“Just a feeling, could be real/I was never sure so I kept it to myself/I was strange and I wanted to believe/Nobody hides better than me”) blended perfectly with her delicate enunciation, powerful incorporation of remembered images, and the gossamer quality of her high notes.
Keyboarding has been part of Bonar’s skill set as far back as 2003 when she was performing locally. All three piano numbers, “Jealous Girls,” “Captain, Captain,” and “From a Cage” were from different albums, but each explored the vagaries of love. Bonar’s gentle reaching for answers reinforced the cruel fact that answers rarely come gift-wrapped and easy to understand.
For the parents in the audience, perhaps the most poignant song was “Down Sunny Roads” from the 2012 EP collection, Bad Reputation. Bonar wrote the song after her daughter was born. There are promises made and promises asked for in the simple, tenderhearted lullaby that talks of “places to go down sunny roads/where you’ll lead me to your dreams.”
Bonar gave the audience three encores, “Your Momma Is Right” and “No Sensitive Man” from Impossible Dream, and in an obvious nod to those celebrating Valentine’s Day, “Heaven’s Made for Two” from Last War released in 2014. Despite the thematic connection to the evening, the extended electric guitar riff at the end of the song undercut the tone of togetherness in the lyrics. An acoustic guitar would have intruded less on the reverie in the final refrain.
Opening for Bonar was a mesmerizing performance by Superior Siren. Nyssa Krause played a sturdy and supportive bass, while Emma Deaner supplied the percussion using a cymbal, a snare, and a small kettledrum. Rachel Gobin stole our hearts on the cello with three deliciously long refrains on the song “For Mother.” Vocals and guitar were contributed with fluid and rangy confidence by band founder Laura Sellner, who has one of the truly original indie voices in the Twin Ports area. Headlining should not be far down the line for this talented quartet of Twin Ports women.
Bonar headed back to the British Isles in March for nine dates in England and Ireland. She is as popular across the pond as she is in Minnesota, maybe more so to hear her friends talk about it. Perhaps she will bring her band, Gramma’s Boyfriend, up to Duluth next time. That might enable better dynamics to fill the space more evenly at Sacred Heart.