[26 September 2004]
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Photo credit: Florent Mazzolini
A few weeks ago you couldn’t spit on a street music rag in Sydney without hitting an article about how freaking wonderful it was that Purplene’s new album had been produced by Steve Albini. I’m not sure what I expected from a band that recently had an album produced by Steve Albini, but this wasn’t it. Purplene are all stately, chiming guitar atmospherics that sit somewhat uncomfortably against the strident vocal stylings of the two lead singers. There were some genuinely beautiful moments, and the general downbeat vibe of their music suited the rainy evening, but on the whole Purplene left me more than a little bored, and I for one want to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Steve Albini. After all, the guy can be a total asshole, so why not?
In another move that saw the Annandale cementing its reputation as one of Sydney’s best venues, the half-time entertainment (live video from a previous gig held there) was greatly appreciated, helping build anticipation for the arrival of the Bonnie “Prince”. Will Oldham possesses an enchantingly odd persona, accompanying many of his songs with evangelical hand gestures that make the stage seem more like a pulpit. His voice is always threatening to jump the rails of his finely wrought melodies, but never quite fails to deliver his essential message, which is never anything more or less than the song itself. The set started at a slow burn, and this inner-city pub venue was suddenly countrified by the tones of Cindy Hopkins’ piano accordion as the band ran through some relatively recent tracks like “Master and Everyone” and “Another Day Full of Dread”. Also touring with Oldham on this trip are ex-Chavez, Cat Power and Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney, his brother Spencer on drums, and Oldham’s brother Paul on bass. The sense of family is transferred to the music they produce, and perhaps because of this the band remained extremely tight throughout the entire show.
Things were then kicked up a notch or two by a surprisingly lively rendition of seminal incest ballad “Riding”. Although the pace, phrasing and chord progression have all been vastly reworked since their original appearance on the Palace Brothers’ LP There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, the song has lost none of its disturbing sweetness and innocent menace, and remains the only serious contender for the “Most Disturbing Entry in the Alt-Country Genre” award, along with the Violent Femmes’ “Country Death Song”. The focus of tonight’s show was mainly Bonnie “Prince” Billy material, which is as it should be, but even those who wished for a more thorough workout of the earlier Palace and Will Oldham classics were not overly disappointed. Amongst the many BPB numbers (a similarly re-worked “Death To Everyone”, along with some more familiar versions of “Ease Down the Road” and “A Minor Place”) were scattered numerous earlier tracks like “Horses” and “Lost Blues”. Perhaps the peak of the show for many punters was the deeply moving “I See a Darkness”. You know you’re onto a winner when Johnny Cash does a cover of your tune, and one guy spent the whole three or so minutes that this song ran flailing his arms with such heartfelt passion that it was hard to imagine that this song hadn’t, at one point or another, saved his life. Or at least got him through a really shit break-up.
Other highlights included a touching “After I Made Love to You”, as well as an especially beautiful airing of “One With the Birds”. After asking if there were any requests from the crowd, Oldham and Co. launched into a trademark bizarro cover of “Barcelona”. At least I think it was “Barcelona”, but if I hadn’t been told that his version of “Big Balls” was an AC/DC cover then I probably still wouldn’t know.
Don’t be mistaken by the overly adoring tone of this review; Bonnie “Prince” Billy is definitely not for everybody. Some people will automatically tune out after just a few bars of his unmistakably lo-fi warble. After all, this is the guy who wrote a beautifully impressionistic elegy about deer, porches and lost love, and then called it “You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hanging Out”. But if you don’t mind your music minus the endlessly produced vocals and dull plastic sheen of most commercial music, and are willing to put in a little effort to find the beauty in this music, then Bonnie “Prince” Billy may well be exactly what you want. Somewhere toward the end of tonight’s gig, Oldham sang “I Am a Cinematographer”, and nothing could ring truer. Bonnie “Prince” Billy creates images without pictures, in order to make a soundtrack without a film.