The moment was not too big for J.S. Ondara. No moment ever seems to be.
The newly Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter from Kenya who moved to Minnesota three years ago made his headline debut at First Avenue on Saturday. If this was a sold-out coming-out party, Ondara handled it like just another gig.
The 27-year-old turned on the charm with his insightful smarts, dry humor, sartorial style, compelling songs and molasses-rich voice.
Ondara started solo a cappella with “Turkish Bandana.” Then he brought out his band for this night only – an unintroduced guitarist, drummer and bassist – for a couple of songs. Ondara performed most of the 90-minute set solo with his acoustic guitar.
Ondara offered material from “Tales of America,” which is nominated for the Grammy for best Americana album, and stories about coming to America (he mentioned a Christmas in Winona), performing in Europe (he just returned from there) and opening for Neil Young (don’t cover a headliner’s song even if a fan requests).
In the folk-singing tradition, many of Ondara’s songs are social commentaries. However, he also delivered a reflection on his mother, “Mother Christmas,” and some unrequited love songs.
Halfway into recording his next album in Minnesota, he introduced two as-yet-untitled songs and asked for feedback – and potential song titles. Song A and Song B – as he called them – felt like pop songs with tuneful melodies and repeating refrains.
Impressed fans indicated their approval and shouted out suggested titles including “Skipping Town” for the Springsteenish former and “Russian Roulette” for the minor-key latter.
Whether those tunes make the cut or not, Ondara clearly has a bright, bright future.