During the early days of the pandemic lock-down, vocalist Sony Holland and her husband were sheltering in place in San Francisco, hunkering down, looking for a project to tackle while waiting for the world to open up again. Whatever that project would be, they knew, it would need to be something challenging, but also something fun.
What they hit on was a new cabaret show devoted to the music of Linda Ronstadt. More than two years later, Holland is bringing that show to Petaluma as part of Cinnabar Theater’s Sundays@7 concert series, this Sunday, May 15.
“Until now, I’d never done a tribute show of any kind,” Holland noted, speaking on the phone from her car, after pulling into a nearby parking space to chat. “But when I thought of Linda Ronstadt, I said, ‘Perfect! She’s a legend, she’s still with us in the world — living right here in San Francisco —she has created so much good music, and singing her songs — with the incredible vocal range she always had — that will be a huge challenge. So we got to work, and that work began with doing a lot of research.”
She quickly made a list of Ronstadt songs worthy of including in the cabaret show. As that list grew longer and longer, Holland knew she’d have to be making some very hard choices. “Linda Ronstadt has done so much incredible music, over four decades of it, in every style and genre you can imagine,” Holland said, quick to point out that listening to hours and hours of Ronstadt tunes was hardly a chore. “I told my husband, who accompanies me in the show, ‘We’re so lucky! We have a treasure trove to sort through, and we have all this down time to do it.’ It was so much fun for someone who loves to sing as much as I do. The pandemic has not been great for any of us, obviously, as artists, but the one advantage it gave us was time, and we used it.“
Beginning her musical career as a San Francisco street busker, singing for tourists at Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square, Holland eventually earned her way to appearances in some of the country’s top music venues from coast to coast, including the Blue Note in New York City, Herb Alpert's Vibrato in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Jazz Center. Along with anchoring a three year residency at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, Holland has worked internationally, singing with an array of jazz combos in Tokyo, Bangkok and Hong Kong.
“I’ve learned a lot about putting together a show,” said Holland, “so one thing I knew going in to this Linda Ronstadt project was that this could not be a three hour show. I had to condense things. So I basically decided to focus on the decade during which she became a star, so that meant the end of the ‘60s and the first part of the ‘70s — and then we throw in a few things that came along after, because she’s reinvented herself over and over and I wanted to give a sense of that.”
To that end, the show Holland will be presenting on Sunday includes many of Ronstadt’s hits, including such Grammy-honored classics as “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “I Can’t Help It If I Still Love You,” “Desperado,” and “Blue Bayou.” Then she’s including some jazz standards and a piece or two from Ronstadt’s late-career foray into Spanish-language ballads, a nod to her own father’s Mexican heritage.
“I love her choices,” Holland said. “Like me, she grew up with the radio being her best friend, and she loved everything. Nobody can sing a rock song like Linda, with such precision, and then turn around and do a soft, sweet country heart-breaker, and then do something classical and traditional, and absolutely nail every one of them.”
Asked if she remembers hearing Linda Ronstadt on the radio for the first time, Holland confirms that it would have been 1974, and the song would have been “You’re No Good.” “That’s a fun song to sing,” Holland said. “It’s a total blast singing that one! But then, as I often tell people, there are 19 songs in my show, and every one of them is my favorite Linda Ronstadt song.”