Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Summer in the Southeast
When I last saw my hero Will Oldham, he was standing next to me, cheek to cheek smiling for a photo on my wife's camera phone for a shot after his gig here in town. When I pulled back the phone to see it and show Will, it was just a picture of the side of my gigantic head, and he laughed a spooky elf laugh shouting "Perfect!" and trotted off to finish loading up the van for the next destination. It took considerable consternation to get over my personal spazz-factor (I can be a nine-headed hydra of loquaciousness in print, but can be a stammering schoolgirl when confronted with the real thing. Isn't this the plight of all critics?) but the incident really set me thinking: Rock star worship is not about the rock-star at all, obviously. NO worship is. But its not really about the self either. If we worshipped ourselves like we should, we'd have no use for the clatter and patter of talking heads. Its about worship of a projected self, an anti-shadow that you are in turn, a shade cast from it. This bad picture of myself was indeed the perfect picture of the object of my doofus music nrrd worship. And maybe it was a Buddha-on-the-road moment, because seeing him live and meeting him was really the end of my worship phase. It's not that I think his work is any more or less great but it let me more on. Not just to new idols, but onto to keeping a little of that worship for myself.
So the concert was fantastic. Like six guitarists, though it was not the weedly armada it could have been, but more a textured raw-edged reworking of the reworking of his old material that was last year's Bonnie Prince billy Sings Greatest Palace Songs. But instead of the rhinestone cowboy act that made that album such a delight, it took on a less menacing Crazy Horse live, something that was happy, celebratory, but still a little out-of phase with things. This same mercurial beastie is captured on the live CD Summer in the Southeast, culled from this tour. It opens with the delicate upbeat rendition of the previous year's "Master and Everyone" which builds from a his cracking lone voice against a slight bass throb into a full gale bar band holler, feeling like the whole thing is rolling on a giant boulder downhill. "Pushkin" a somber near-silent epistle from his very first Palace Brothers album becomes a rock incantation to God with its interplayed treatments of the oft-repeated phrase "God is the answer." In fact this is much the case throughout the the album. Oldham is famous for always reworking his skeletal songs into new things with each revisit, and has always been rather cagey about giving a reason. My guess is that while his spectral candle-flicker is close and insular and ghost-like on record, but may not be all that fun live, while letting the geese fly from the barnyard is.
I could go on and recount he differences between the live and studio versions, but that is the kind of wankery best reserved for online discussion groups, so here are some highlights. "Wolf Among Wolves" is a spectral thing floating on a pond of light guitar lilies. "May It Always Be" is rendered into a full gallop duet with guitarist and rumored Princess to his Prince, Pink Nasty. "O let it Be" takes a big hit and becomes a roaring psychedelic rocker in the middle and I send My Love To You" becomes a June Carter and Johnny Cash honky tonk roller that might have fit in nice at Folsom Prison so many years ago, was it not for all those skronky guitars in the middle. "Madeline Mary" one of his more incendiary pieces on vinyl is turned into a spooky classic rock chant piece, given even more menace in its reworking. The final track is a rather faithful "Ease on Down the Road" one of the best songs about the innocence of infidelity ever. Here like elsewhere on the album, there is a choir of voices singing slightly out of sync, giving this a shuddery quality I really like. The show I saw was more of a barn burner than is demonstrated on this release, but its no bother. I think this one holds closer to the folk-mystic-shtick he works so well, but offers some of the most open stuff in his extensive catalog, showing that his singular music is not a set of mood pieces, but a songbook like that of many others, open to endles interpretation and massaging. And maybe there's a lesson for the self in this, that there is always room for change without losing what makes you You. And maybe I haven't quite moved out of my worship phase if I'm throwing out this kind of stuff about a freaking live record. Its good stuff for the novice, and a must for the acolyte. Catch a glimpse of the rock Billy before he goes polka on our asses in his next refactoring.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com