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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Royal Festival Hall, London
April 20th 2009

I really have tried hard with Bonnie Prince Billy, aka Will Oldham. If you don’t know, he’s from the home of Bourbon, Louisville, Kentucky; also the birthplace of Mohammed Ali who had a street named after him (reminding me of a very funny story about the Pendennis Club, which I’ll leave ‘till later) and indeed, of the famous Louisville Slugger.

Bonnie Prince Billy
It’s not that Billy lacks advocates. Almost every thinking-person’s newspaper or magazine deifies him on a regular basis, and Dave rarely misses an opportunity to sing his praises – as he did, in typically engaging Dave style, here. But we all know how subjective our appreciation of music is and, no matter how intriguing the press and valued or trusted the recommendations, I’ve never quite connected with Mr Prince’s music. Don’t misunderstand, his songs are wonderful in their structure, the lyrics aching, searching, deeply personal, yet hugely accessible. But there’s just something missing. Recessive production and too much wistful melancholia, I just don’t know what. As we sat at the table next to Bonnie, band, entourage and crumpled pile of papers in Wagamama, chomping noodles, tofu and snow-peas, I was tempted to ask him what it might be, but he was so engaged in his grub and thoughts that it seemed rude.
Bonnie Prince Billy
As it happens I didn’t need to, because this truly splendid performance (so good that I put my notebook away, sat back and allowed the blessed music to roll over me, just like waves on the white sands of an isolated Hedridean beach) provided the answer. Josh Abrams on bass, Emmett Kelly on guitar and vocals, Cheyenne Mize on guitar, violin and harmonies and the other great Jim White driving the band along on drums, with Billy’s own eclectic grungy guitar, gave his fine songs a compelling edge. Gave them the punch that they often seem to lack on record. Alt. country, punk country, indie folk country rock punk, maybe a touch of acid-house? I have no idea what you call it, but it was a thing of beauty. I’ve noticed a few comments on forums that the hard-assed country style killed some of the songs, but for me, combined with Mr Prince’s vocals (and the joyful harmonies) it brought them vividly to life. And you do know how good a performance is when a song ends, only to be greeted by that wonderful moment of awed silence from the audience. That was what followed ‘I see a darkness’.
Bonnie Prince Billy
Bonnie Prince Billy,
dancing Appalachian style
There’s a thin line to be walked between art and artfulness and I’ve never been sure which side Mr Bonnie is on, but in this performance, his demeanour (bib and braces donned après noodles), absurdist comments, occasional Appalachian-style dancing, indeed the whole package, seemed entirely natural and fully engaged with the music. Of course BPB has a new album out, Beware, and he played about half-a-dozen songs from it. But there were almost another twenty songs drawn from his extensive back catalogue of work and all played with the same overwhelming intensity, not a dud amongst them. And I wasn’t going to forget support act Susanna, an impressive three-piece from Norway fronted by the wonderfully-voiced Susanna Wallumrod, with Helge Sten on a very other-worldly guitar, who provided the perfect amuse-bouche for Mr Billy.
Maybe we’re just lucky, but this one rocketed into ‘Gig of the year’ contention, usually a small space which is already getting very crowded. And my advice: well of course buy Bonnie Prince Billy’s albums, since it’s how he makes a living, but don’t take them at face value and please go and see him perform live. It’s a wonderful visceral experience, which for what it’s worth nearly had me in tears. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)
Listen: Bonnie Prince Billy on MySpace

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