Bonnie Prince Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham)
Long Live Death
Iron Horse, Northampton, MA • February 1 2003
For those of you who are unaware, Northampton is a quaint little college town, comfortably ensconced in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. Listen closely to the lyrics of the Pixies’ “UMass,” and you’ll get an idea of the place. As with any college town, Northampton is a place teeming with white liberal guilt, and with a modicum of sincerity as well. Scrawled on a restaurant’s bathroom wall I found an equivocal “message” that eloquently articulates the aura and attitude of this town: “Shoot cops in the face and freebase prozac.” What this exactly means, I am not really sure. It just somehow seems to convey the essence of Northampton. Still Northampton is a decent place to do some record shopping, find an obscure book, or see a good show. On Saturday night, not even a little snow and ice were gonna prevent me from driving the hour north to see Bonnie Prince Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham, a.k.a. the common denominator of Palace Brothers, Palace Music, etc.).
The Iron Horse is an intimate venue that is easy to forget about as it is down a narrow side-street, separated from the proverbial “beaten path.” It was nearly ten years since I last saw a show there (Madder Rose in 1994), and I have long sought an excuse to return. What is nice about the Iron Horse is that cantankerous fucks like myself can sit at a table in the balcony and not be bothered by the younger crowd who still has the energy and desire to have “fun” (read: those who are still in school and do not have a “real” job — god, I sometimes really miss those days).
Long Live Death set things off. This band is quite possibly the worst band I’ve ever heard. Donning kaftans and singing about moons, stars and lakes, they signified everything that is bad about Sixties psychedelic music and those who attempt to resurrect it. Their lyrics were frivolous and their music (think the Doors on Quaaludes) was like watching molasses ooze from a jar. Maybe they were attempting to be a parody of themselves — some sort of performance art piece. Unfortunately, I think that the crow calls and barking were not meant to be at all ironic as their abysmal performance culminated with a four-minute chant, in repetitive call-and-response style, of “there is no death.” As the band gathered in a semi-circle, abandoning all instrumentation, one could only hope that death did indeed exist and it would waste no time in proving Man’s mortality. Damn you hippies for all this self-disenfranchised droll!!!
The only time I saw Will Oldham play live was on a sultry August night in Wisconsin about three years ago, sharing a bill with June of 44. How that happened, I have no idea, as there cannot be two more diametrically opposed groups of musicians. I remember that June of 44 rocked out as usual, but Will was drunk and arrogant, trying too hard to be a ROCK STAR, betraying his honesty and dexterity as a songwriter. Admittedly, the drive to Northampton was fraught with trepidation, fearing a repeat performance. Yet, everyone I know who has seen Oldham, or one of his alter-egos, touts his performance; maybe the night I saw him was just an off night (maybe it was the oppressive heat, or the tentacles of Wisconsin culture that demands the excess consumption of beer). In the time since, he has released three full-length albums, a slew of EPs and did a duet with Johnny Cash on the Man in Black’s American III: Solitary Man. Point is, by the time I arrived at the Iron Horse and shelled out the thirteen dollar cover charge, I was convinced that this performance would be different. After the opening act, the shrill squeal of a dentist’s drill would have been soothing.
Perhaps it was because he now assumed the moniker of Bonnie Prince Billy, but this was a very different performance than that of three years past. The man seemed happy, bereft of pretension; he was gregarious, actually acknowledging the audience before him. There were even a few rounds of “name that song,” with the winner receiving a t-shirt. Sharing the stage with brother Ned on bass and some “friends” who rounded out the standard line-up of rhythm guitar, drums and backing vocals, Oldham’s set was a captivating two hours that touched on every corner of his prolific career. Most of the set was culled from his latest release Master and Everyone (Drag City), a continuation of that dark, ironic indie folk beauty that Oldham more or less invented and has subsequently perfected. The solemnity of this recording translated seamlessly in front of a full house. “The Way” was utterly haunting, while “Hard Life” was performed with a double time intensity that is often foreign to Oldham. The unadorned beauty of his craft was further complemented by Oldham’s mellifluous harmonization with Marty Slayton on songs such as “Ain’t You Wealthy, Ain’t You Wise” and “Maundering.”
The notion of solitude, a recurring theme in his repertoire, permeated the Iron Horse as Oldham was left to his own devices partway through the set. In these “quieter,” more pensive, moments, Oldham delved deep into his creative genius offering songs from Lost Blues and Other Songs (“Ohio River Boat Song” and “Gulf Shore”), Viva Last Blues (a stripped down version of “Work Hard/Play Hard”), and about a half dozen other songs that I know I have heard, but I can’t remember their title or on which album they can be found. To be honest, there were times when I felt as if has was hearing Oldham for the first time. This has a lot to do with the man’s seemingly inexhaustible recording ethic. Yet, it really doesn’t matter if one doesn’t know all the song titles (although there were some zealous fans who not only knew each song’s title, but the song’s lyrics as well). It’s more about understanding and appreciating the beauty, irony, and occasional perversion of Oldham’s muse.
By no means was this a soporific performance. Moments of starkness and vulnerability were juxtaposed with rollicking songs that got the audience stomping their feet and shouting the obligatory “yee-haw!” There was even a bit of rowdiness as some of the boys down in front began to mosh it up. For Christ’s sake, it’s a Will Oldham show! But, I forget the pugilism so often associated with college boys who have had a few too many and get lost in the moment. These folks were likely the boyfriends of those screaming “Minor Place” at the top of their lungs for the duration of the set. Needless to say, the song was never performed.
Sitting in the balcony had its draw backs. With the temperature approaching a hundred degrees, it was time to leave. I just couldn’t bear it any more. Besides, at that point, Bonnie Prince Billy was getting a little boring — as would any musician after a two hour set. So out I went, into the snow and ice to begin a somewhat perilous trek home, glad that I found the courage to brave the elements of a New England winter and give Will Oldham another chance.