The one and only time I saw Bonnie “Prince” Billy perform was at a huge, outdoor show in Montreal, where he opened for Björk. It was an odd choice on an even odder bill (Yeah Yeah Yeahs were also scheduled to play directly before Björk) but Will Oldham seemed to relish playing for an audience who wasn’t immediately receptive to his songs. As he launched into “One with the Birds” accompanied by nothing except his autoharp, my friends couldn’t believe that I was watching in rapt attention. In fact, one my friends couldn’t even believe I owned any albums by this mysterious, bearded man who seemed to be dancing on one leg, and demanded I show him the vinyl to prove it. Another friend once recalled seeing a Palace show in which Oldham sat with his back to the audience for the entire gig. Certainly, performing live is yet another avenue for the chameleon-like Oldham not only to re-present his songs but also his persona.
The tracks for the all live Summer in the Southeast were recorded last year on Will Oldham’s brief summer jaunt. Focusing mostly on small towns and tiny venues, it would appear that this would be the perfect opportunity for Oldham’s intimate songs to come to life. And they certainly do. With a six-piece backing band that includes longtime producer Paul Oldham and young singer-songwriter Pink Nasty, Summer in the Southeast does its best to upend the image of Will Oldham as a solitary troubadour of modern Americana.
Spanning 17 tracks and lasting over an hour, Summer in the Southeast certainly isn’t lacking in quantity and touches upon nearly every facet of Oldham’s career. Kicking off with the title track off Master and Everyone it isn’t long until Oldham’s supporting players make their present known. The track is pumped full of distorted, openly strummed guitars and raw percussion. And much of Oldham’s repertoire is given the barroom band overhaul. “Break of Day”, “A Sucker’s Evening” and “O Let It Be” are among the many tunes reinvented. But none of it works. Oldham’s strength has always been in the subtleties of his songs and the intimacy of his voice. Instead of amplifying and strengthening the already delicate structure of his songs, Oldham and company strangely strip the songs of any emotion.
In presenting these songs in extraordinarily ordinary rock ‘n’ roll surroundings the group numb the complexity and vulnerability that make them so powerful. “I See a Darkness” is rendered powerless when turned into a drunken sing a long, while Pink Nasty’s lead singing, and the ramped up tempo of “May It Always Be” awkwardly take the song from the front porch to the arena. Thus, it’s not surprising that the album’s best songs are the ones that find the band holding back the most. From Guarapero/Lost Blues 2, “Take However Long You Want” is stoic in its quiet dignity, while “Nomadic Revery” is possibly even more haunted than the studio take on I See a Darkness. But these are brief opportunities that Oldham allows his audience to get close, choosing instead to coat the bulk of the album in heavy sonic washes.
Will Oldham occupies a unique position in the music underground. His past successes have garnered him a large following who generally indulge and support Oldham in whatever direction he decides to take. He has won favor with a wide array of unique artists, and his long list of collaborators is impressive. It’s been over two years since Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s last proper album, and the intervening releases have shown a Will Oldham who is trying to understand his position in the rock underground. 2004 saw the release of the squeaky clean, Nashville seasoned reinvention of Sings Palace Songs. With Summer in the Southeast, Will Oldham continues to reconsider and even perhaps belittle, his extensive and often accomplished back catalogue. But instead of finding new corners, opening new emotions and walking down hidden avenues, Oldham distances both himself and his fans from the songs that have resonated with truth and beauty in their original presentation. By continuing to question his relationship to songs that reach far back into his history, Oldham seems unable to move forward.