Bonnie “Prince” Billy at the Portage Theater

The new record by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Letting Go, is probably one of his best. (And I say this as someone who owns several BPB or Palace Music CDs, without having the complete discography.) This concert by Billy (aka Will Oldham) was quite good, though it didn’t sound much like his recent recordings. The icy recorded-in-Iceland textures and high female harmony vocals were gone, but the music still sounded like no one else’s.

Oldham has developed a peculiar pattern of motion — I hesitate to call it “dancing” — kicking one his legs behind him as he plays guitar, doing a sort of little skip. It’s a good fit for his voice, sometimes a mumble, sometimes a cracked howl. The band sounded loose, very loose, as if the musicians were figuring out the songs as they played them — no, that makes it sound too primitive. Let’s say it was more like an informal basement rehearsal, with a band going over songs that it knows but without being too worried about getting every note right. Azita was playing keyboards and operating a laptop, and she had the unusual role of leading a charades-like game with the set list. Oldham would turn to her before most of the songs and ask her what was next, then she would hold up her fingers to indicate how many words were in the song title and offer other clues.

I came in as the opening act, Dreamweapon, was wrapping up its set. I showed up in time to see a sitar, harmonium, and um… various other unidentified instruments all making droning sounds. A wave of undulating noise. Pretty good if you’re into that kind of thing…

A word about the Portage Theater. The last time I was in this building was the early 1990s, when I lived nearby. I came here once to see a movie, “Thelma and Louise.” Then this place was shut down for years. It reopened recently and has hosted silent movies and a horror movie convention. I believe this was the first rock concert at the Portage. It’s a huge place with a high ceiling, the room shaped a little like an airport hangar. It isn’t as ornate as some of the city’s more glittering old theaters, such as the Chicago Theatre and the Ampitheatre, but it does have some nice ornamental details on the walls and ceiling. The stage is pretty high off the floor, so the sight lines are good. There’s a wide space in front of the stage where people could have stood if they’d wanted (one or two guys did), and I ventured up there a few times for photos. The theater was pretty full for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. I’d venture a guess that most of the people in this crowd haven’t spent much time out in that part of the city, the Six Corners neighborhood on the Northwest Side, where not much happens as far as indie-rock shows. The Portage is a good addition to Chicago’s concert venues.