Monday, May 10, 2010

Artifice and Artlessness With Bonnie Prince Billy

The other night I accepted an invitation to see the Kentucky singer-songwriter Bonnie "Prince" Billy at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. I came out of the show realizing that this enigmatic figure, whose work I’ve known for about 15 years, is vastly more talented as well as much weirder than I had ever thought.

First, the show: The artist formerly known as Will Oldham appeared in McCabe’s 150-seat room, lined with string instruments, with sidekick Emmett Kelly. I would happily pay to see the baby-faced, angelic-voiced Kelly play his understated mix of folk, acoustic country and classical guitar solo.

Oldham, wearing a plaid shirt, khakis he kept rolling up and a pair of slippers without socks, has to be seen to be believed. With his long, scraggly beard, weathered voice and devotion to the Appalachian folk tradition, he seems like the kind of cat who would be obsessed with “authenticity” and the plainspoken quality of mountain and hill music. I expected him to sit in his chair and brood.

But Oldham, a trained actor who appeared as an earnest boy preacher in John Sayles Matewan, has the body language and delivery of a Shakespearean. He’s a recluse who refuses to give interviews to his hometown paper, but onstage he was both gracious and weirdly excited. I’ve rarely seen an indie artist so committed to his material. Between the actorly impulse, the supposed naive quality of rustic music, and the multiple monikers he’s used – I think Oldham was calling himself Palace Brothers when I first encountered him -- there’s a weird play on artifice and artlessness going on here. (Is it all an act? A friend who lives in Louisville talks about seeing him in slovenly dress around the coffee shops, looking like an escaped mental patient, and Oldham himself mentioned that he’d glimpsed himself in the dressing room mirror and thought, “Who is that homeless person?”)

The other thing: Oldham’s voice is as rich an instrument as I’ve ever heard. It sounds good on record – including the new “The Wonder Show of the World,” recorded with Kelly – but in that tiny room it was a whole other thing entirely, raw and piney but with great emotional shading. He opened with the album’s first track, “Troublesome Houses,” singing while Kelly played guitar, and then played a song he called “ a Norwegian folk song. It was written by Norwegian folks.” Both were tense and devastating.

Well, I could go on from here but the magic and intimacy of the night will be hard to recapture. I only hope this is one of those shows McCabe’s chose to record. (The second night’s show, apparently, was recorded without mics, which Oldham said he prefers.) The album is my favorite by him in years, and pretty stripped down, but like much acoustic studio recordings it is a little overproduced and some songs have an instrument or voice too many.

One of the advantage of seeing a show there is being able to check out the instruments and book collection on the way in and out. I was able to strum Lowden’s Richard Thompson model acoustic guitar (!), and picked up an old Leadbelly songbook put together my Lomax and Mo Asch. Also met and spoke to Lincoln, who manages the shows, very cool guy and a serious music lover. In any case, quite a night and I will return to this shrine to the strummed and plucked as soon as I can.


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