In the heady days of the late 1960s and early 70s, The Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood did more than just serve up well-drinks; it helped launch the careers of many famous singer-songwriters. On any given Monday around noon, a line formed for the open mic Hoot Night — only the people waiting were not patrons but performers, soon to be “discovered,” and singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff, then in her late teens, was among them.
Fast-forward several decades to next week, when patrons will queue up outside the Vashon Theatre for a concert by the now acclaimed singer-songwriter. On tour in the Northwest, Bonoff will first play in Portland, then at Seattle’s Triple Door, before taking the ferry to Vashon for a one-night-only performance on Wednesday, Feb. 21. Be prepared, Vashon, to stand in line.
Bonoff, who says her passion has always been music, began her career early, writing songs at age 15 and studying guitar with Frank Hamilton of the folk group The Weavers. Part of the new wave of female songwriters in the 70s who personalized songs with soul-searching lyrics, Bonoff’s hit “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” sung by Linda Ronstadt, “Home” sung by Bonnie Raitt and “Tell Me Why” sung by Wynonna Judd were among her many titles that resonated with fans then and still do today.
“Music transcends and moves people,” Bonoff said in a recent interview from her home in Montecito, California. “People say, ‘You were the soundtrack of my life,’ and that is so meaningful to me. I feel that way about other songs. They do stay with you, and you remember where you were at a certain point — you smell all the smells.”
When Bonoff takes the stage at the theater, she’ll split her time between playing the guitar and the baby grand piano, accompanied by acoustic guitarist Nina Gerber, who The San Francisco Examiner calls a “remarkable accompanist; Gerber’s contribution is magnificent.”
“Nina and I have been working together for 13 years,” Bonoff said. “She is well known in the Bay area. We’ll perform songs from all of my albums, the first to the fourth, some Jackson Browne and some new things. It is wide-ranging, both retrospective and new material.”
Bonoff and Gerber tour regularly across the country and in Japan but only for short jaunts of four or five days. It’s not like the old style of three to four weeks of touring, Bonoff said, adding, “which we definitely did with buses. I opened for Jackson Browne after my first album (“Karla Bonoff”) and for James Taylor after my third (“Wild Heart of the Young”) — I loved doing that.”
Bonoff’s first and truest love has always been music. She came to songwriting, she said, from the music, the melodies, chords and chord structure. Emotional music inspires her and the lyrics follow.
“It has always been about music and that brings something out of me when I write,” she said “‘Someone to Lay Down Beside Me’ had unusual music, and I don’t know where the lyrics came from — out of the ether — they arrived like a gift out of the air.”
A gift out of the air, or more succinctly, out of the airwaves, is how Bonoff’s concert arrived on Vashon Theatre owner Eileen Wolcott’s cell phone last summer.
“It was Strawberry Festival, and her people called me,” Wolcott recalled. “‘We have a date we could fill on her Northwest tour. Would you like that?’ they said. I jumped at the chance. We’ve had other live events here, so suddenly people are contacting me for bookings.”
Wolcott said that while live events are well covered on the island and she doesn’t want to “jump into someone else’s pool,” she hopes the concert will raise much-needed funds for a new heating and cooling system in the theater.
“The cost is a six-digit figure. We’d like to raise enough for a down payment on a loan. That’s our first priority — to keep the building sustainable; there are numerous second priorities, so we are hoping to boost income beyond movie ticket sales,” she said. “And, we are so excited about the concert. It should be a fun night.”
As for Bonoff, she said she’s always happy to come to the Northwest. Her sister lives on Bainbridge Island, and the musician has visited Vashon once or twice before. Mostly, though, she said she appreciates playing for her fans of 40 years.
“I’m grateful the music is meaningful to them, grateful for fans who are still here,” she said.
Tickets are $30 in advance and sold at vashontheatre.com or $35 at the door. The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21.