Tracy Bonham, ’90s Alt-Rock Hitmaker, Bringing Brand-New Material To Caffè Lena

In 1996, my daily diet of music consisted of a rotating cast of bought and borrowed compact discs, including everything from Beck’s Odelay (borrowed), The FiggsBanda Macho (bought) and Tool’s Aenima (bought); to Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire (borrowed), Metallica’s Load (borrowed) and the Eels’ Beautiful Freak (bought/borrowed), an album I purchased for my older brother as a birthday present, then ended up basically co-opting. In a word, my tastes were all over the place. In the middle of this milieu, I was a 16-year-old sophomore at Saratoga Springs Senior High School, who played the cello, got decent marks, was in a Misfits cover band and had trouble fitting in. I wasn’t a jock or a drinker, didn’t have a girlfriend and was painfully awkward.

Amongst all of that personal baggage and glorious noise, my local alternative rock radio station of choice, 102.7 WEQX, started spinning a tune, “Mother Mother,” by a female solo artist named Tracy Bonham, whom, for months, I wrongly assumed was the daughter of Led Zeppelin’s late drummer John Bonham. (These were the days before you could find quick-fix answers on the Internet, when you had to wait until Rolling Stone magazine came to your doorstep to learn the secret lives of your favorite artists.) She might as well have been Zep progeny, though; her song, which soon hit heavy rotation, was like “Over The Hills And Far Away,” in the sense that the lovey-dovey acoustic intro eventually gave way to a powder-keg blast. “Mother Mother” was an angsty, tongue-in-cheek answering-machine-message to a/her mother, which begins with a staccato acoustic guitar accompaniment to Bonham’s gorgeous, serpentine vocals and then just detonates at the 0:43 mark into a full-swing rock song. By the one-minute-ten-second mark, it becomes a nuclear warhead, with Bonham sing-whispering, “I’m hun-gry, I’m dir-ty, I’m losing my miiiiind…EVERYTHING’S FINE!,” screaming those last two words from a guttural region rarely navigated by a female vocalist on alt-rock radio at the time—or ever since, for that matter.

“Mother Mother” was folk, rock and metal all at the same time, and I absolutely loved it. And so did everybody else. The three-minute song rose all the way to No.1 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock Tracks chart, no small feat for a (female) solo artist. (That wouldn’t be accomplished again for another 17 years, when Lorde’s “Royals” took over the airwaves in 2013.) “Mother Mother” would end up garnering Bonham Grammy nominations for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance (it lost out to the equally edgy “If It Makes You Happy” by Sheryl Crow) and Best Alternative Album, for the album it appeared on, The Burdens of Being Upright (which, in turn, lost out to Beck’s Odelay). I can still listen to that song and be transported back to ’96, and feel all the angst that had built up inside me. I so badly wanted to stand up on my desk or in the cafeteria in high school—or better yet, at home, at my dinner table—and scream “EVERYTHING’S FINE!,” even though I knew it wasn’t.

Tracy Bonham’s forthcoming album, from which she’ll be performing songs at Caffè Lena, is tentatively entitled ‘Punk Meditation.’

Fast-forward to 2005, and I was living with a roommate in Astoria, Queens, and everything still wasn’t so fine. I absolutely despised my book publishing job and daily tried to summon the courage to quit (I eventually did). My goal was to become a full-time rock music writer like Lester Bangs or Cameron Crowe. The latter was something that I’d been dabbling with ever since interning at Rolling Stone magazine a few short years prior—what brought me to the city in the first place. It was an internship I’d enjoyed immensely but which put me on the verge of a daily panic attack, because I was in such awe of everything about it. (I remember only being able to eke out a meep or two to heroes of mine such as David Fricke, Jann Wenner and Jason Fine.) Through a connection at the magazine, though, I’d begun writing regular reviews for American Songwriter by ’05, and was getting a steady stream of advance copies of albums in the mail. One that showed up at my doorstep and immediately hit heavy rotation on my five-CD-disc-changer was Bonham’s third album, Blink the Brightest (I remember that it not only came in a jewel case but had its own removable paper sleeve, too, adding a level of “special” to it.) As far as I can tell, I was never able to place a review for the album in American Songwriter, but I’m sure my editor assigned it to someone else. Had I had the chance to write it, though, my 150-word review would’ve been a four-star rave: I was enamored of it almost immediately. “Something Beautiful,” the lead track, was graceful pop candy with an infectious chorus. Track No.3, “And The World Has The Nerve To Keep Turning,” was the goth cousin of The Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way,” which I heard Bonham and her band perform at the Housing Works Bookstore one evening that April, her version slathered in trippy violin (among other talents, Bonham’s a classically trained fiddler; I hat-tipped her cover in a story I did for another website years later about, ahem“underrated” Beatles songs). And “All Thumbs,” a song about constantly running away from love, echoed the voice inside my head that kept saying, “Dude, you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.” I listened to that song enough to believe it had been written about me.

Thankfully, that voice didn’t know what the hell it was talking about: Two years later, I met the woman of my dreams, who would later become my wife, and I believe I put one of Bonham’s songs—maybe “Something Beautiful”?—on a mixed-CD for her while we were dating. Interestingly, the year Blink the Brightest dropped, Bonham herself found true love as well, eventually marrying—wait for it—Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine. (Neither I nor fate had anything to do with it.) The couple, who now has a son, divide their time between Brooklyn and Woodstock, NY.

These days, both Bonham and I are seemingly living the dream. I was able to land this gig at saratoga living in my beloved hometown of all places, and she’s continued—from my old second home of Brooklyn and one of my favorite places on Earth, Woodstock—to make music that’s worth its weight in gold. Like 2017’s Modern Burdens, for instance, an album on which she, along with a laundry list of talented female vocalists such as Nicole Atkins and Tanya Donelly, “covers” her own debut album, track for track, save for a 13th song, aptly entitled “Free.” (Of the record, says Bonham, “It was probably the most liberating experience I’ve had making a record.”) On Burdens, her biggest hit, “Mother Mother,” is reimagined as a sultry, lounge act number in 12/8 time (she also subsequently re-recorded the song this year as a way of “reclaiming” it from her original record label; depressingly, she tells me her lawyer’s in the process of trying to figure out whether the original master for the song was lost, along with many other great ones, in the 2008 Universal fire). Bonham retooled the second verse of the Burdens version, giving it a, shall we say, stripped-from-the-headlines makeover (I’ll let you do the side-by-side comparison).

Luckily, Bonham, or rather her music, hasn’t ever been too far from my life. And this Friday, August 9, you’ll be able to enjoy exactly what I have for all these years in the comfort of Saratoga Springs’ most intimate and historic of venues, Caffè Lena. (Tickets are still available and cost anywhere from $11-$22.) It’s one that Bonham’s surprisingly never played before, despite having performed at its big sister across town, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, back in ’98 as part of the all-women Lilith Fair lineup. “I’m excited [to play Caffè Lena], because I’ve heard that the audiences are great; they’re super warm, open and listen; you’ve got two sets, so you can really spread things out; and [the audience is] a real music crowd,” says Bonham. (I can’t argue with that assessment.) And while fans will likely be hearing a nice cross-section from her six studio records and various EPs, they’ll also be hearing a handful of new tracks from a forthcoming album, which she’s tentatively calling Punk Meditation (there’s no street date for it as of yet). “My whole attitude about life and songwriting is so different now than it was in the ’90s, but there’s still a spirit to it,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a punk album, but there’s still a lot to be angry about and yet, my musical tastes have kind of eased up. The two of those things, which normally don’t go together, can go together on this album. That’s my goal.” My 16-year-old self couldn’t be more excited.

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