The Harold & Irene Walton Theatre, the intimate listening room housed within Bellingham’s Mt. Baker Theatre, has hosted world-renowned and influential musicians – Bob Mould, Karla Bonoff, and Loudon Wainwright, to name only a few — for its Lookout Sessions series. Recently joining that impressive list was punk-folk singer-songwriter Sunny War accompanied by guitarist Anthony da Costa.
Delving deep into her back catalog, Sunny opened with tunes that stretched back almost to her days busking on the streets of Venice Beach, California, and ended with a few selections from her newest album, Anarchist Gospel (New West Records).
Born Sydney Ward, the Nashville-based guitarist began playing at age seven. Mainly self-taught, Sunny developed her unique finger-picking style playing Beatles (“Blackbird,” “She Loves You”) and delta blues tunes. Born in Nashville and growing up with a single mom, Sunny moved around the country (Colorado, Michigan, and California) eventually settling in Los Angeles in 2004. The next few years were occupied with busking on the streets of LA, San Diego, and San Francisco slowly building a dedicated musical following.
Those years on the road were a test of survival as alcohol and hard drug abuse took their toll. As Sunny said, “The body can’t handle both heroin and meth. When you’re young, it’s hard to gauge that you’re killing yourself.” After a series of seizures, she ended up in a Compton sober living facility, so emaciated that only kids’ pajamas fit her.
Stream Anarchist Gospel by Sunny War on Spotify.
Remarking on the new album, Sunny said, “I feel like there are two sides of me. One of them is very self-destructive, and the other is trying to work with that other half to keep things balanced. Everybody is a beast just trying their hardest to be good. That’s what it is to be human. You’re not really good or bad. You’re just trying to stay in the middle of those two things all the time, and you’re probably doing a shitty job of it. That’s okay, because we’re all just monsters.”
That emotional duality infused her music and prompted me to think of another, though unlikely, comparison: the beloved and sorely missed Warren Zevon. The LA singer-songwriter (also a near-victim of his own self-destructive addictive impulses) whose output in the 1980s and ’90s included comical, and demented, songs like “Werewolves of London,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and the classic, “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” also wrote songs of aching beauty and longing: “Mutineer,” “Searching for a Heart,” and the hymn-like “Let Us Not Get Sick,” (“Don’t let us get sick, don’t let us get old, don’t let us get stupid, all right? Just make us be brave, and make us play nice, and let us be together tonight”). Sunny’s songs straddled that same line: exquisite melodies and insightful lyrics tethered to the reality of life’s tragedies.
Watch the official music video for “Gotta Live It” by Sunny War on YouTube:
Sometimes described as shy, Sunny was nonetheless forthcoming onstage (“I’m still working on my banter”), introducing herself by noting that she’d be playing a lot of older songs this evening. She opened with “Boom Boom” from her album Worthless (2015), its lyrics simultaneously described redemption and the pain of living: “I’ve got a soul that I hold, at least that’s what I’m told, in this heartless world.”
Onstage, Sunny stood stock still, just a young woman and her guitar, pouring forth beautiful, bluesy melodies with brutally frank lyrics. Somehow, shy wasn’t the word that came to mind when watching her perform.
Setlist for May 19, 2023:
Sunny’s music also was reminiscent of American guitar master John Fahey, whose playing style is credited with establishing “American primitive guitar,” a genre based on folk and blues traditions and referring primarily to the self-taught nature of the music and its minimalist style. Lest you think that primitive means “simple,” Sunny’s unique finger-picking style evokes Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, whose own technique relies on the thumb to provide a bassline while his remaining fingers define the melody. Sunny did much the same thing but relied only on her thumb and forefinger, her other three fingers firmly anchored to the guitar’s body. Meanwhile, her left-hand flied over the strings and frets in a dizzying combination of chords, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
This is how LA Weekly’s Michael Simmons described Sunny’s playing in 2009: “…her right thumb plunks the bass part while her forefinger upstrokes notes and chords, leaving the other three fingers unused. A banjo technique, it’s also used by acoustic blues guitarists. Her fingers are long and strong — Robert Johnson hands — in jarring contrast to the waif they’re attached to. The walking bass line sounds like a hammer striking piano keys in perfect meter, while the fills are dynamic flurries — like cluster bombs. I haven’t heard a young guitarist this dexterous and ass-kicking in eons.”
After about a half dozen songs, guitarist and backing vocalist Anthony da Costa joined Sunny onstage after having just arrived at Bellingham’s International Airport 20 minutes earlier, leading to more good-natured onstage banter. Watching Sunny perform alone and then with DaCosta was a wonderful study in contrasts. Except for her nimble-fingered playing, Sunny stood motionless, an almost solitary figure while DaCosta’s lead guitar flurries and body language were the very definition of outward expression. Together, Sunny and Anthony provided a thrilling contrast in styles yet melded their playing into a cohesive whole: Sunny’s rhythmic consistency and deeply expressive vocals and Anthony’s staccato, percussive, yet restrained attack made for a highly effective musical point/counterpoint.
Watch Sunny War perform “New Day” live on CBS This Morning via YouTube:
After a short intermission, Sunny and Anthony returned to perform a few more tunes from previous albums: Simple Syrup (2021), Shell of a Girl (2018), and her 2020 EP, Can I Sit With You? before closing out with four songs from Anarchist Gospel. Concluding with “Whole,” Sunny’s words, like Zevon’s, showed us how redemption, though often lying just out of reach, nonetheless can remain just visible on the horizon of our lives.
Please visit Sunny War’s website for information on tour plans (she’ll be criss-crossing the USA throughout the summer), new music, and videos.
Here are some more photos of Sunny War performing at Bellingham’s Mt. Baker Theatre on May 19, 2023. All photos courtesy of and copyright Mark Caicedo.