On most days, J.S. Ondara is a 26-year-old folk singer with a voice like no other, who can fill a room just by singing his songs. Today, however, Ondara asked the audience to imagine that he was 80 years old, an aging musician trying desperately to revive his career. There was a reason for this unusual request — after flying in from Paris, Ondara had woken up this morning to find that he caught a bout of what he’s calling the “French flu,” and his voice was gone.
But J.S. Ondara refuses to let something like the flu get the better of him. The soft-spoken musician came to Philly with an endearing sense of humor and a backup plan. Sure, he couldn’t sing in the key he normally does, but he could try playing his songs a few octaves lower. And to complement the change in tone, Ondara decided to swap out his usual acoustic guitar for a softer piano accompaniment.
In a stroke of good luck, he found a pianist with only a few hours’ notice, and they rehearsed for 20 minutes backstage. Despite never having played together before, as the two musicians opened the set with “Saying Goodbye,” it was immediately clear that J.S. Ondara’s songs would sound as beautiful as ever. They followed it with largely improvised renditions of “Torch Song” and “Lebanon” from Ondara’s recent album Tales of America — and since they’d only had time to practice three songs, they finished the set with a second “Saying Goodbye,” because “Why not? It’s already a bloody weird day,” according to Ondara.
Sometimes, though, something weird and unexpected can turn into something surprisingly great. J.S. Ondara didn’t just make the most of a bad situation, but proved that his music holds up no matter what roadblocks come his way — and it looks like he may have found himself a new band member in the process.
A hopefully healthy J.S. Ondara will return this summer to play XPN Fest on Saturday, July 27. Find more information at xpnfest.org.
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