Nick Morgan and crew
Review by Dave Broom
BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY Corn Exchange, Brighton,
February 12, 2007
you think it will be the same as last time?”
asks The Welshman, recalling Bonnie
previous day trip to the seaside. On that occasion
his support act was a modern classical quartet (that
choice didn’t go down well with most) and
his set was whispered so softly that after 30 minutes,
many in the audience appeared to be snoozing.. or
meditating...it was hard to tell, this is Brighton
can never tell,” I counselled, “he could
decide to play it loud, or do it all in polka time.”
The interval music continued. Ritual chanting. The
Welshman (who, it has to be said at the outset is
A Huge Fan) wasn’t impressed. “He’s
just doing this to wind us up,” he concluded.
I wonder to myself if this is the set. The Bonnie
“Prince” in darkness somewhere howling
into a distorting mike. I decide it’s probably
best not to proffer that as a suggestion. The Welshman
has just spent the afternoon stripping a strimmer
with a plastic spatula.
On stage a young roadie was fiddling with the drum
kit. He sits down behind it and tests out his handiwork.
Patterns, light touches, strange rhythms. Free.
“I heard the drummer from the Dirty Three
was playing with him,” says Wookey Joe fresh
up from his Somerset cave. That’s the thing
with the ‘Prince’, you can’t even
tell if he’s coming on with a band or not..
and what band it will be. The roadie finishes his
soundcheck. Pity, would have preferred him to play.
The chanting continue, there’s a heaving call
and response going on now. The Corn Exchange is
full. That’s a big turnout for a ‘minority’
act. “I mean,” says the Welshman, “He’s
hardly a zillion selling platinum album artist is
he?” He, the Wookey and I moan about the Police
reforming.. and Genesis, though the Stooges getting
back together is agreed to be A Good Thing.
a strange venue the Corn Exchange. Just a large
hall really, with bad acoustics that’s used
by bands who are too big for the Concorde but not
quite big enough for the Centre. It can be hired
for other events. I recall the time I accidentally
drop-kicked a small child across the floor while
dancing (rather too enthusiastically) at Iranian
New Year. That didn’t go down too well.
shuffle of musicians on stage. A few whoops. Young
kid in red plaid shirt on electric guitar, bass
guitarist with Hawaiian shirt and (it appears) permed
hair, while the roadie kid settles down behind them
and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy/Will
Oldham/Palace/Bonnie Billy (whatever he’s
calling himself tonight) stage centre. Tight black
suit, buttoned up black shirt, mountain man beard,
a hint of a Bobby Charlton comb-over which cannot
stop the lights reflecting from his huge bald dome.
starts. A spiritual to kick off with, tinged with
country. It’s a sound of old America shot
through with religion and British folk melodies.
He hops around, holding the guitar high in that
strange Springsteen fashion, yelping and hollering.
The vocal lines are extended, improvised. By the
third song things are getting louder and looser.
It’s clear suddenly that the drummer is leading
this with a continual pulse of rolls and fills,
cymbal snatches, patterings. Suddenly the music
drops the beat, goes free. I look at the Welshman.
He’s grinning madly. No chance of a snooze
It’s more or less what you’d expect
from Will Oldham (to give the Prince his proper
name) 12 albums in, and many more collaborations.
He was born (and still lives) in Louisville -- there’s
a whiskey connection Serge -- and became part of
a local scene which took ‘rock’ or ‘blues’
or ‘country’ and threw away the labels,
found a new ground; bands like Slint, artists like
the great Tara Jane O’Neil. He’s drifted
through many aliases, singing his poetic songs about
love, loss, deviancy. They are odd songs, literary.
Mrs Broom would call them miserable, but even she
would be enjoying tonight.
are his songs and like Dylan he does what he wants
with them. He recently reworked his Palace back
catalogue as Nashville schmaltz. Ostensibly, he’s
here to promote his new album ‘The Letting
Go’. Recorded in Iceland with a string quartet
it is (mostly) quiet, reflective. Tonight though
the songs are being reworked as psychedelic country
that touches on the Dead (at their free-est, but
also their most rootsy) Dinosaur Junior, Neil Young,
early Flaming Lips, free jazz. Aha! That’s
who the kid on drums is.. the greatest free drummer..
no make it the greatest drummer working in Britain,
Glasgow’s own Alex Neilson, the perfect foil
for Oldham’s fractured rhythms and vocals.
He dips into the back catalogue: an extended. loud,
ecstatic Master and Everyone, Lion Lair. The words
roll over each other. He stops and rambles about
how “the culture of the burning leaf and the
culture of liquid” can never properly meet.
I look at the packed bar. The no smoking signs.
“You drink a lot here,” he points out.
The two hour mark is passed and he sings on, stopping
to discuss webbing between the fingers which brings
him, circuitously, to a fusing of ‘Is it the
Sea/My Home Is the Sea’, then a country/acid
conflation of two sings about John The Baptist by
John Martyn and EC Ball.
The encore (taken quickly) stretches out to five
maybe six songs. “Love Come to Me’,
sung with Dawn McCarthy and finally a redemptive
‘I See A Darkness’ [yes, the one that
Johnny Cash recorded]. You get the feeling he could
have gone on all night were the Corn Exchange staff
not getting twitchy.
The next day I downloaded pretty much the same set
from a gig he and Alex had played in Edinburgh,
this time with a folk band. That worked too. -
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