Bonnie 'Prince' Billie
Review of his gig in Whelan's, Dublin, Oct 27th 2001
If it's true to say that Will Oldham records don't get played much at parties, then it may also be true that Bonnie 'Prince' Billy records are less likely to be aired at funerals. The atmosphere in Whelan's reflected the best of both moods - the hush tones of the hillbilly fanatics were neatly tempered by a merry clang from the bar. And added, most importantly, to the music from the stage - the persona of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Will Oldham, the creator of Palace music.
On certain, rarer nights Whelan's the Venue shines, and this is one. Oldham and band assume the stage in an easy relaxed manner, and invite all present into their front lounge, or onto their back porch, for a trip through hillbilly psychodrama, sexual longing and abuse, and easy-going melancholia - and there's plenty for those who listen.
His last release, 'Ease Down The Road', forms the basis of much of Oldham's set tonight. The subtle, lighter freedoms of this release, as opposed to oppressive claustrophobia of many of his earlier recordings, affords both Oldham and his band the opportunity to create a broader, even merrier sound than he's previously played. It's been suggested that this is Oldham's 'Harvest' and, to be blunt, this record works better live than his other material.
And so the performance begins. Two, among many, of the significant songs performed were 'May It Always Be' - the eloquent, simple song of love - and ' After I Make Love to You' - the religious refrain of which overscores a mood of doing 'something filthy in a rented room'. But these are not sombre songs, even if they are sung as such.
The lightness of mood is reflected in the wonderful 'Just To See My Holly Home', one of several later songs in which babies feature. Whelan's is brought to Louisville, Kentucky on carnival night, and to the family sing-a-long on the jeep ride home.
The rest of the set is composed of songs I recognise but titles I cannot recall - melodies echoing in the dusty cupboard of the head - which is probably just what Will Oldham would like. This was one of very few performances where the listener need not know anything about the songs - contexts, dates, names - as each segues into the next to produce a soundtrack effect. And everyone present was playing their own movie.
Oldham closes, after a second encore, with 'I Can See A Darkness', a song that's already ensured his place in the pantheon of American(a) music, and popularly heard through Johnny Cash's doomed version. Tonight it's transferred to a mellow goodbye song - the buddiness of the Cash version disappears, and we face the darkness together.
There can be few complaints about this performance - perhaps the bass was too
loud, but this is a group that functions without drums, and the subtle fiddling
and easy guitar work compensated. Whether Will Oldham goes onto bigger things or
not, or strays from his back porch, this show underlined the importance, and uniqueness
of his work, as songwriter and performer.
Are you ready for the country?
Check out a review of Bonnie Prince Billie one night later in the same venue