J.S. Ondara knows he has good stories. Lots of them. Long ones.
When the Kenyan singer-songwriter, who’s putting a new spin on American folk music, played Lost Lake on Tuesday night to a sold-out crowd, he graced the audience with brilliant songs and winding tales that were funny, poignant and critical of our social-media-obsessed country.
Some stories rambled on too long. Way too long.
Of course, waxing at length between songs is a signature move of traditional folk musicians; it’s one of the things that has made the genre insufferable and relegated to coffeeshops where people cringe behind laptops.
For an artist like Ondara, who has rooted his image and story in the folk tradition, that sort of banter is true to form. And that’s a problem.
To be fair, Ondara is building his identity and leaning on those tales to make him stand out in a world where a guy with a guitar is about as appealing as a vomit bath. And his autobiographical meanderings in interviews have served him well, earning him accolades in Rolling Stone, Billboard and elsewhere.
NPR has noted that he makes extraordinary music, but his story’s even better. NPR may be right when it comes to interviews, but at live shows, Ondara needs to speak less, sing more and slash his set time if he wants to build his audience.
"There’s a lot of destruction in the universe, so it’s really great when people can come together and listen to folk songs," he told the crowd.
True, but folk songs, not folk banter.
Ondara's the most promising guy with a guitar of this moment. He’s being heralded as the unlikely descendent of his hero, Bob Dylan, though people need to stop making that comparison. Sure, Dylan was great before he started covering Frank Sinatra, but Ondara stands out for his lyricism and stirring melodies all on his own.
By titling his debut album Tales From America and reflecting on what this nation is, what it’s becoming and what it feels like to live here in these “days of insanity,” as he sings, he manages to breathe life into a vision of the country that’s hopeful for more than white men.
In his own subtle, safe way, Ondara is resisting the racist, xenophobic visions of the right without saying as much. He gives solace to those who can imagine something better. That’s what the great folksingers, from Pete Seger to Woody Guthrie, have always done.
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While Ondara is schooled in the past, he’s of this moment and should embrace that fiercely. He doesn’t need to tip his hat to past crooners; he’s enough without them.
Ondara’s fresh take on folk could resuscitate the best of the genre: protest songs, poetry and deep introspection. He just needs to leave everything else that doesn't work about folk behind.
In October, Ondara’s slated to play the Bluebird — the next big step toward Red Rocks, where he ultimately belongs. To do so, he needs to shorten his set, focus on his sublime songs and remember that Shakespearean cliché: Brevity is the soul of wit.
J.S. Ondara, 8 p.m. Monday, October 21, Bluebird Theatre, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $16-$18.