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Concert Review by Dave Broom
 
BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY Corn Exchange, Brighton, February 12, 2007
“Do you think it will be the same as last time?” asks The Welshman, recalling Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s 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 after all. Will Oldham
“You 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. Maybe.
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.
It’s 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.
Bobby Charlton   A 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.
It 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 tonight.
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.
They 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. The leting go
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. - Dave Broom.



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