It’s always enlightening to witness a musician who not only has something to say, but who also does so within the contours of a sound that is immediately, recognizably their own. Such is the case with Ray Bonneville, whose alchemical grooves are as intriguing as his poetically flinty lyrics.
Songwriters, virtually by definition, have stories to tell. Bonneville’s tend to be peopled by streetwise hoods, femme fatales, sad sacks, hobos, straight shooters and chance-skipping dreamers he’s encountered over decades of travels. Born and raised in Quebec (and, later, Boston) in a French-speaking family, his wide-ranging resume includes stints as taxi driver, Vietnam-era Marine, bush pilot, flight instructor, bar band musician and, finally, touring singer-songwriter. His third album, 1999’s “Gust of Wind,” earned a Juno Award (Canadian equivalent of a Grammy); his ninth, the tautly performed and arranged “At King Electric,” brings him to Wine & Song Wednesday with Northern California keyboardist Richie Lawrence.
Peers such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Gurf Morlix and Mary Gauthier respect Bonneville as a badass player, a rep reenforced by his sharp wit and words-don’t-come-cheap public demeanor. His voice is a gritty instrument — tonally akin to gravel overlaid with smoke — thus imbuing lilting balladry like “Tender Heart” with unexpected sweetness via textural contrast between message and messenger. New Orleans, where he lived for a stretch in the 1980s, is true north on his musical compass, an influence that’s most obvious during the second-line jubilance of “Papachulalay,” whose protagonist finds hope in a passing street parade. Bonneville deftly braids blues and country funk elements throughout unsentimental tales of characters navigating addiction, love and loss. “The Day They Let Me Out,” delivered in the voice of a prisoner about to be released, is a gripping example of his skill at slyly building narrative tension over rumbling drums and a snaking groove:
“Hello, it’s me, your brother
It’s been a while
Please don’t go hanging up the line
I was afraid to tell you
I wound up in here
Where you’d better never show fear
I can trust nobody but you now
Will you come for me
The day they let me out”
The longtime Austin resident does not perform in the LA area too often. Fans of J.J. Cale and Tony Joe White who have not yet introduced themselves to Bonneville’s music are advised to do so, post haste.
Ray Bonneville & Richie Lawrence perform two featured sets at the Wine & Song series at Arroyo Seco Golf Course, 1055 Lohman Lane, South Pasadena, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23; $12-$17. Host Brad Colerick and Danika & the Jeb will also perform. To learn more about Bonneville, visit raybonneville.com; for tickets and other show info, go to blueguitar.club.