This was Alyssa Bonagura’s first London headline show, after a smattering of support slots for other artists. Like Nicole Kidman, she has one foot in the UK and the other in Nashville and is a frequent visitor to Britain. She was introduced by a man called John, who was a key figure in the development of her career and helped her win a scholarship to LIPA. He sat at the back of the packed Slaughtered Lamb and beamed with pride. There was also a table of people who had driven down from Norwich.
First, Sally and Steve aka Gasoline & Matches opened the evening with a set full of harmonies and mighty acoustic guitar solos. Damn You was an excellent poppy song which was rather affected by a loud bloke at the bar who had not learned the etiquette of a songwriters’ night and would later literally stumble from the room knocking the drink out of Sally’s hand. That doesn’t seem fair given that G&M had given us a country reading of Livin’ on a Prayer as well as a Lady A-sounding new single.
Alyssa has an enviable catalogue and played tracks from her 2012 album Love Hard and 2016’s Road Less Traveled. They included Warrior, a ‘fight song’ written for a friend going through medical issues, and Rebel, which Sally requested after Alyssa told the crowd to shout out what they wanted to hear. She wrote I Make My Own Sunshine on a ukulele in Liverpool; in one of those crazy stories artists can tell when things work out, it ended up on a Steven Tyler album where the ukulele part was played by ‘the best ukulele player on Maui!’
She has also had songs cut by Jana Kramer (the tender Circles which made Top 40 on country radio) and Jessie James Decker, who is currently competing on the American version of Strictly; I Do contained a glorious chord progression and a delightful lyric about the salvation of love.
Alyssa had tuned her guitar down two full steps, which meant her sparkly capo made an appearance on most songs, while she was joined for several songs by guitarist Steve. That isn’t Steve from G&M but a more swarthy figure who, bizarrely, studied physics at uni and was cheered on by his old course mates! The pair starred in the video for Alyssa’s recent radio-friendly single Other Side of the World, so it was excellent to see them on the same stage. The pair of Paper Airplane and reminiscin’ song Last Night in December, written with Sam Ellis and Jon Nite, were understated gems.
At various parts of the evening, she sounded like Sheryl Crow or Joni Mitchell but Alyssa can also do pop-punk. Her own song When You’re Gone led nicely into an impromptu version of Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You. She then pulled a friend out of the audience who happened to be Jess from the folk trio The Staves, who harmonised to gorgeous effect on Heavy on My Mind. New Wings will remain a crowd favourite because of its riff, doubled by Alyssa’s vocals, and future smash Love You Like That introduced a singalong element into proceedings.
It might feature on the long-delayed follow-up to Road Less Traveled, which might well prove John’s words that ‘the best is yet to come’. If it’s this good already, Alyssa could be scarily good by 2023.
A final thought. Every American act should stop off at The Slaughtered Lamb or a room of similar size which can hold 80 or 90 absolute maximum: a relaxed ‘Evening With…’ performance where collaboration, singalong and camaraderie trumps any promotional pushes.