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With nods to Dylan, Ondara does not disappoint

Cafe 939, Boston, March 23, 2019

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

It would be hard to underestimate the influence of Bob Dylan on J.S. Ondara. That would not have been predictable considering that Ondara grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. In fact, he has Guns N' Roses to thank for his Dylan obsession because once the rock music lover found out that the band was not responsible for "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," one thing led to another. And a very musical direction for Ondara.

And now Ondara is in the midst of a headlining tour, selling out the Berkleee College venue weeks ago with a few hundred intense and intent listeners in the room.

Ondara did not disappoint. Armed with an acoustic guitar in hand and wearing a light-colored suit, gray hat and white shoes and socks, the Dylan influence was never too far away. He might have echoed the phrasing of his mentor at times., but he was not trying to mimic Dylan either. One could also imagine Dylan singing some of the songs. Fortunately, Ondara did not play the harp.

But to paint Ondara with the brush of merely being a Dylan clone would do both injustice.

Ondara often presented songs with a sociological or political bent, including wondering exactly where he might fit in in the U.S. (turns out he decided to move to Minneapolis about five years ago specifically because Dylan was from there.) That was obvious from songs, such as "American Dream" from his just released "Tales of America" debut with verses including "Lover don't you come down/Without a sword or a gun/Well the gold and the silver You're searching is hidden /Out there underground."

The songs may have had a downer quality to them as Ondara pointed out with a smile on his face, but his warm, inviting voice made you want to listen intently to the words. Ondara has a lot to say.

He also had a chunk to yap about in between songs with a variety of stories including about his mother thinking he should have stayed in Kenya or taken her help in trying to find the woman of his dreams. Ondara's easy-going persona was perfect for this sized room where his warmth paid dividends.

Ondara did not show an especially wide sonic vocabulary, but at this point in his nascent career, that did not present a roadblock. He closed the 75-minute show with his most commercial sounding song, "Saying Goodbye." It's a sing-a-long about a relationship that did not take off.

With shows like this under his belt, chances are ultra-strong that Ondara will find himself saying "hello" to a lot more fans whether into Dylan or not.