The most recent record from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Wonder Show of the World, is yet another very strong collection of songs by the prolific, enigmatic singer-songwriter Will Oldham. And it’s one of 2010’s best records. Oldham’s key collaborator on these recordings is Chicago guitarist Emmet Kelley — also known as the Cairo Gang. (Or is that the name of his band?) The songs on Wonder Show are mostly spare and acoustic, with a folk-rock sound that’s occasionally reminiscent of early ’70s Neil Young.
But when Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang came to Chicago for four concerts this week, the new songs were transformed into sprawling, loose-limbed, full-band arrangements. The music often sounded much different from the studio recordings, but it was equally beguiling. Oldham and his band played two shows Tuesday night (Sept. 28) at Ronny’s in Logan Square, which is — let’s face it — something of a dive bar. It’s quite a bit smaller than the last place I’d seen Oldham — the Vic Theatre, where he played my favorite concert of 2009.
I was at Ronny’s for the late show on Tuesday. After an opening set of atmospheric, droning folk rock by Scott Tuma, Oldham took the stage and removed his flip-flops, revealing his pink-painted toenails. Oldham’s fingernails had pink nail polish, too, and his eyes were underlined with black makeup. The eyeliner was smeared on the left side of his face, looking like a bruise. As usual, Oldham’s face was covered with bristly hair, including a walrus mustache. As he sang, Oldham often contorted his legs and arms as if he were improvising some yoga moves.
While Oldham often plays guitar in concert, he left all of the guitar playing up to Kelly at these shows. The two clearly have a close musical connection. Kelly has a gift for playing loose, informal renditions of songs. Kelly and Oldham seemed to be giving each other cues on where the songs were going. Kelly would lean forward, pausing as he waited for Oldham to come in with a vocal line. The rest of the band (bassist Danny Kiely, drummer Van Campbell, keyboardist Ben Boye) followed their leads.
Chicago singer-songwriter Angel Olsen provided harmony vocals — and she also sang lead on the first song of the show, a rocker called “Sweetheart.” When Oldham, Olsen and Kelly sang together in the quieter moments, the concert had the feeling of a basement choir practice among friends. But this was also a strong rock show. The opening track of the new album, “Troublesome Houses,” was transformed from mellow folk-rock into a louder, more driving song.
Here’s the photograph I took of the set list, which Oldham had in a notebook he carried onto the stage.
The songs were: “Sweetheart” / “With Cornstalks or Among Them” / “Go Folks, Go”” / “Easy Does It”/ “Where Wind Blows” / “I See a Darkness” / “Teach Me to Bear You” / “New Wonder” / “Island Bros” (?) / “Troublesome Houses” / “Kids” / “That”s What Our Love Is” / “Where Is the Puzzle?” ENCORE: “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me” (traditional folk song) / “Price of Love” medley
I did not recognize the first song of the encore, but based on the notes I took on the lyrics, it seems to have been the folk song “I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me,” which has been performed by June Tabor and the Chieftains. The final verse was particularly striking as Oldham sang it: “I wish my father had never whistled/I wish my mother had never sung/I wish the cradle had never rocked me/I wish I’d died, love, when I was young.”
The final song was a long medley built around throbbing chords on Kelly’s guitar. Beginning as a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Price of Love,” the medley incorporated at least one other song, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “Madeleine-Mary,” before circling back to the chorus: “That’s the price of love, the price of love, The debt you pay with tears and pain.”
As Oldham writhed on the stage Tuesday night at Ronny’s and the band filled out the songs with an almost jazzy sense of exploration, it reminded me sometimes of Van Morrison from the Astral Weeks era.
On Wednesday (Sept. 29), Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang played two more shows, this time at Lincoln Hall. This time, I attended the early show. Chicago musician Josh Abrams played a cool opening set, performing deep, jazzy ruminations on the gimbri, a North African instrument in the lute family.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s early set list on Wendesday turned out to be quite different from the previous night’s late show. Of the 11 songs, five were repeats. (The show was also briefer, with only 11 songs compared with the 16 at the Ronny’s late set.)
The vibe and performance were similar at Lincoln Hall, with just a little bit less of the more rocking songs. It struck me on Wednesday that many of Oldham’s songs feel like plays — short dramas being acted out on the stage, proceeding from one act to another with a real sense of surprise, even if you’ve heard the songs before. The audience followed along with rapt attention. When a song finally reached its closing line, the crowd often paused before clapping — as if we were all holding our breaths, wondering whether that was really the end.
Oldham’s strange expressions and gestures also seemed like a performance by an actor — not that I think there’s anything phony in his quirky moves. In the song “Teach Me to Bear You,” Oldham clenched his arms in front of his chest and bared his teeth as he sang the lines: “But my hands are empty, and my throat cracked and drawn, because I gave away the name you gave to me. Yes, I sang away the name you gave to me.” The specter of Oldham standing there in that posture was a vivid dramatization of the lyrics.
Here is a photograph I took of Emmet Kelly’s copy of the set list. The band added one song not listed, “Troublesome Houses,” and skipped a few others.
The songs were: “Because of Your Eyes” (Merle Haggard cover) / “The Sounds Are Always Begging” / “With Cornstalks or Among Them” / “Island Brah”? (This seems to be the song that looks like “Island Bros” on the previous night’s set list.) / “Merciless and Great” / “Another Day Full of Dread” / “Go Folks, Go” / “Troublesome Houses” / “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” / “Teach Me to Bear You” / “You Are Lost”
Oldham, Olson and Kelly’s voices sounded beautiful at the concert ended with “You Are Lost,” one of the best songs from Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s 2009 record, Beware.
All in all, these were two more remarkable concert performances by one of today’s greatest songwriters.
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