When Los Angeles went into lockdown, musician Bill Bonk immediately knew how to cheer his quarantined neighbors in Laurel Canyon.
“I thought: Why not do a concert from my porch – where all the neighbors could hear some great vintage music while keeping a social distance?” says Bonk, 60, who has toured with artists around the world, including Grant Lee Buffalo, Aimee Mann, Susannah Hoffs, Lisa Loeb, Bonnie Raitt and his dear late friend, John Prine.
After all, Laurel Canyon has a rich musical history, harking back to the 60s when Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, David Crosby, The Byrds and The Mamas & the Papas first settled in this leafy Hollywood Hills enclave, just a few miles up the mountain from bustling Sunset Boulevard.
“Actually, it was my wife’s idea to do these concerts,” he admits a few seconds later, referring to his wife Deborah Davis-Bonk, a former music industry marketing executive.
“And then when all the neighbors chimed in suggesting songs, we began working around that,” says Bonk. He began his weekly 7pm Saturday shows on April 4, each week performing five classic songs over 25 minutes.
After Bill Withers died, he performed his legendary song Lean on Me and, following Prine’s death, he paid tribute with Angel From Montgomery, a song he knew by heart after accompanying Prine and Raitt during hundreds of live shows.
“Mainly I cover songs which reflect the Laurel Canyon history. It just makes sense,” he explains.
Although an accomplished vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, guitar, bass, mandolin, accordion, cello, flute and harmonica) – he knew he couldn’t go it alone. He enlisted his daughter Jas, 13, on vocals and acoustic guitar and neighbor Jackson Kay, 14, on electric guitar.
“I try to make it a teachable moment for the local kids so they understand what our neighborhood is about so I feature songs from Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and other classic artists who helped create the artistic magic of Laurel Canyon.
“I have a large repertoire of my own music from my old band, The Brothers Figaro, but with the porch concerts I find songs that the kids are comfortable performing and also what the neighbors want to hear.”
With audiences growing weekly through word of mouth and FaceBook, Bonk’s Saturday night shows have become a cherished highlight among the community; a place to gather – at a distance – and perhaps sip on a martini in a to-go cup while dancing with the neighbors.
“It’s very emotional and heart warming to see everyone come together, finding some small joy in our lives which have temporarily been sidelined,” says Bonk, a music teacher at Episcopal School of Los Angeles.
His ultimate Quarantine playlist? The Byrd’s Mr. Tambourine Man, Jackson Browne’s For Everyman, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Our House and Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You.
He pledges to continue his porch concerts for as long as he is needed. “I feel such a longing from the people who gather here every Saturday night, just looking for a connection. Everybody wants to be together, even at a distance. Music is so healing and we’ve started a great new tradition.”
Music has long been a canyon custom, he says, recalling the “needle drop” during the 60s and 70s when locals would chose a new album, everyone opening their windows at 7pm Saturday, dropping the needle in sync so it could be heard throughout the streets. “Apparently, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon were big hits on the ‘needle drop’.”
Bonk’s secret to aging with attitude? “Improve every day, learn a new instrument and never grow up.”
One of his favorite performances with his daughter Jas is California Dreamin’ captured at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiMQcztbtNI
Follow Bill Bonk’s weekly Saturday shows at 6pm PST on livestream at https://www.facebook.com/laurelcanyonporchconcerts/
PIX CREDIT: Dave Rygalski