Review: Decades later, Ian still no has-been

Janis Ian had her first hit at 15. By 16 she was a “has-been,” back in 1965.
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For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s preview of this show, click here.

Janis Ian had her first hit at 15. By 16 she was a “has-been,” back in 1965. That’s what she told The Egg’s sold-out Swyer Theater audience Sunday night as the first half of a double-bill with Karla Bonoff.

Ian, of course, was wrong, hence the packed house and a string of hits and successes for decades after. Grey-haired and proud, age has given her an astounding comfort level in her own skin, her delivery of songs pin-drop soft and fragile but tougher than steel.

She told several stories through her set, some intense, all with some political themes, and all drew you in you in before the song started.

“Don’t you get tired of singing that song?” an 18-year-old from California asked her last month.

“Writers live for the day when you write that one song that touches everyone,” she said. “When that happens, you don’t get tired of singing it.” She sang the beautiful “At Seventeen.” But she could have been talking about others.

“Society’s Child” came early in the show — followed by her first standing ovation of the night — after a lengthy story about racist protesters shouting her off the stage at 16, before the promoter inspired her to get back on stage.

Political, humorous, and full of wisdom – revealed through her voice and guitar playing – she kept the room drop-dead still while singing songs like “Through the Years,” and the bluesy “Bright Lights and Promises.”

She accompanied herself on guitar, playing unbearably sparse parts, her vocals gentle, defiant, and maternal — a term she may or may not like — taking us through the past several decades.

She sang “Silly Habits,” a song she wrote and recorded with Mel Torme — of all people — that revived her career at the time. It has a jazzy feel to it, of course, but at her core, Ian seems safest as a blues singer, and you hear it in most of her songs.

Bonoff came on stage with support from Kenny Edwards — from her decades-old band Bryndle — and Nina Gerber on guitar, both of whom rounded her sound nicely.

Bonoff sang her string of folk ballads, all beautiful, mostly sad, a few almost celebratory. Songs included “Falling Star,” “I Can’t Hold On,” “Tell Me Why,” and “All My Life.” This last one Linda Ronstadt recorded.

“I hear they sing this at a lot of weddings, but not mine,” Bonoff said as she unstrapped her guitar and sat at the piano. She constantly peppered her set with sarcasm and pessimism, drawing laughs.

Saying she had writer’s block for about 10 years, “New World” just came to her, “like certain ones do.”

To introduce “Please Be the One,” she said she lip-synched it on Solid Gold in the ’80s, then the Merv Griffin Show that same week — “sharing a makeup room with Richard Simmons.”

Bonoff sang beautifully and easily could have carried the night herself. But Ian made the night: her intensity, her disarming chutzpah, her ability to make a crowd comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. She sits in her skin well.

At the end of the show they sang together the traditional ballad “The Water Is Wide.”

Cut from the same folk fabric, they were two very different sets, amounting to an uplifting night of music and grace. We should all have our entertainment filled with such class and special talent. Ian credited her career with being in the right place and time, along with other elements; maybe so, but very few people could have achieved what she has, given the same circumstance.

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