Sometimes keeping it simple is the smartest thing a singer/songwriter can do — especially one with an elaborate voice and his own unique perspective.
Twin Cities folk and Americana music picker Ondara brightly displayed those traits in a darkened, sold-out Cedar Cultural Center on Thursday. His first hometown gig since the COVID-19 pandemic was an intimate, mellow triumph played all on acoustic guitar. Never mind his prior hesitations to be pigeonholed as a folkie.
The Grammy-nominated Kenyan immigrant formerly known as JS Ondara (and Jay Smart before that) was supposed to perform at First Avenue last September, when his latest album, "The Spanish Villager, No. 3," was released. However, he abruptly scrapped that show and many more around the country.
At the time, Ondara said he wanted to reinvent himself as a costumed character and dancer on stage, based on a graphic novel he created alongside an identity crisis of sorts during COVID lockdown.
"In truth, I have felt slightly trapped in the folk singer, troubadour form that propelled the beginnings of my career," he said then in a post.
None of the reinvention or crises were evident Thursday, though. A folk singer/troubadour is exactly what the sold-out crowd got.
Taking the solitary stage in a white suit, Ondara started the show by mentioning the third anniversary of George Floyd's murder, which he marked with his haunting a cappella tune "Turkish Bandana." It was the first of many songs to question the sanctity of the American Dream, a theme at the heart of his 2019 debut, "Tales of America" (nominated for the Grammys' best Americana album in 2020).
"Will you be sincere, are you averse to honesty? / Will you dare to hear those children marching on the street?" the 30-year-old singer asked in the night's second song, "God Bless America."
The tunes off Ondara's latest album (his third) played off that faded-America theme from different angles, at once sounding more global and yet more personal in tone.
"An Alien in Minneapolis," which won the $50,000 grand prize in the International Songwriting Competition earlier this month, alluded to his immigrant status but also sounded like a straight-up breakup song. The Jackson Browne-flavored "A Blackout in Paris" warned of plague and "dragons riding into town," but also fretted about "waiting for your lover to come around."
Without a band behind him, Ondara sidelined some of the more up-tempo and thickly textured tunes off the new album that show more of a Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel influence. By contrast, though, the stripped and slowed-down "A Seminar in Tokyo" — a highlight from "Spanish Villager" — starkly echoed Bob Dylan, whose heavy influence is partly why Ondara moved to Minnesota.
"Even when I'm in Japan / ohhh, always Minnesota time," he sang, earning a smattering of cheers from the proud, standing-room-only crowd.
More hurrahs were heard when he launched into two of the best-loved songs off his debut LP, "Lebanon" and "Saying Goodbye," saved for the pre-encore finale and then the final song, respectively. He also drew extra applause near show's end with "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want," a song by British indie-rock darlings the Smiths, whose bassist Andy Rourke died last week.
At least in the case of the Smiths cover, Ondara defied the folk-troubadour trademark. As for the rest, hearing him strum through a passionate all-acoustic set in one of the Twin Cities' warmest-sounding listening rooms seemed to be exactly what the hometown audience wanted.