“I heard that Beyonce put out a record today,” singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) said during his concert Friday night, Dec. 13, at the Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wis. Noting that Beyonce had put her album out on iTunes (actually, the night before) without any advance publicity, Oldham said he’s done the same thing.
Then he wryly claimed credit for giving Beyonce the idea:
“I called her and said, ‘It’s getting to the end of the year. You should put out a record.’ She said, ‘Bonnie, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Just put it out on iTunes.’ She said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”
Before anyone takes this too seriously, we should mention that Oldham has a sideline as a somewhat strange stand-up comedian. While it’s doubtful Beyonce has copied anything from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, it’s true that he’s taken some unusual approaches to releasing music.
Oldham has always been prolific, with so many semiofficial releases under various guises that it takes some homework to keep track of what he’s doing. The homework is worth doing — Oldham is one of the most consistently interesting songwriters of recent years. He hasn’t had a proper album of original songs since 2011, but during that time, he has released EPs, singles and collaborative projects (including an album last year with Trembling Bells and another this year with Dawn McCarthy, the wonderful Everly Brothers tribute, What the Brothers Sang).
And now he has a new album called simply Bonnie “Prince” Billy — which he is selling at the merch tables during a short concert tour, and virtually nowhere else. I snagged a copy for myself and another for a friend on Friday night. I think the guy selling records said that only 23 copies are for sale at each show (though it looked like there more than that). He said the album will come out next year with wider distribution. It’s a spare solo recording, and the only label information listed on it is a P.O. Box in Louisville. During his set, Oldham called it “the yellow record,” adding that the color came out a little greenish.
I made the drive to Madison for this concert because Bonnie “Prince” Billy didn’t include Chicago on his brief 2013 itinerary — unless you count the set he’s playing at 7 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 19, during the Second City’s annual “Letters to Santa” benefit. His other stops on this tour include St. Louis, Iowa City and Minneapolis.
After a lovely opening set of instrumental music by the Chicago group Bitchin Bajas, the stage was set for Bonnie “Prince” Billy: just a table and one microphone. It became clear that this would be a solo performance, something I’ve never seen Oldham do. He sang and played his unamplified acoustic guitar into that one mic, performing a set of more than 20 songs, including many that he recorded in his early years under the Palace Music and Palace Brothers monikers.
He opened with a song I didn’t recognize, which eventually morphed in the Palace Music track “New Partner.” Was it a medley or an extended version of that song? I’m not certain. I jotted down some of the lyrics, which seemed like Oldham’s way of introducing himself to the audience:
“I’m here to sing you songs in this room I have …
“My job is to sing these songs of questionable purpose.”
Oldham often lifted one foot and twisted his posture as he sang, employing some of the same gestures I’ve seen him use when he’s in the full throes of a more rocking soon with a band. And as always, he bared his teeth and rolled his eyes at key moments of his songs. He was more talkative than usual in between songs.
After the first song, he asked, “Does anybody here have Black Panties?” After a woman in the crowd shouted that she did, Oldham said, “Oh, you’re wearing them? I meant the R. Kelly CD. … This next song exists only due to the inspiration of your neighbor to the south, Robert Kelly.” He then sang, “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” — a song that doesn’t sound anything like Kelly’s music.
[UPDATE Dec. 18, 2013: I picked a bad time to drop a casual reference to R. Kelly. The controversy over rape and abuse allegations against the R&B singer has erupted again, driven by this Village Voice story. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read it. And I should add that I don’t understand Will Oldham’s fascination with Kelly.]
At another point, Oldham played “Horses,” a song originally recorded by Sally Timms and Jon Langford of the Mekons. That prompted Oldham to tell the story of how he’d encountered Langford one time in a bar, dragging Langford out to his car to play him Oldham’s recording of the song. Oldham said Langford’s reaction seemed to be: Who the hell is this guy? “One of the high moments of my life,” Oldham said Friday, recalling that moment. An even higher moment, he said, was the time in 2007 when Oldham filled in for Tom Greenhalgh during a few songs when the Mekons played two shows in one night, at the Hideout and the Mutiny. (That was a great night for me in the audience, too.) As he remembered that night, Oldham compared it to watching Casablanca and being asked to fill in for Humphrey Bogart on the screen. Then he changed his mind, adding:
“I’d rather be Peter Lorre, actually.”
Oldham also commented on his love of craft beer, noting: “You can’t download it.” He mentioned that during his introduction to his most famous song, “I See a Darkness.” Tired Hands Brewing Co. is making a beer named after that song. “I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of beer in my life during the last few years,” Oldham said. (Who can forget the time he interviewed a beer-brewing robot in a video for Dogfish Head Brewery?)
While he was in Madison, Oldham and his tour mates visited the Wisconsin State Capitol to get a look at Old Abe, Wisconsin’s Civil War eagle — “who flew into battle Lord of the Rings-style,” as Oldham put it. They heard a tour guide explaining how the original taxidermied Old Abe was destroyed a long time ago in a fire. “The Old Abe that’s in there is an impostor,” Oldham said. That led him into his 2011 song “Quail and Dumplings,” which he described as “my song about being disillusioned with America.” (As political protest songs go, it’s somewhat obscure.)
After an enthralling hour and a half of music and banter, Oldham closed the night with a cover of R. Kelly’s hit “The World’s Greatest,” transforming it into his own style of folk rock. The words seemed both goofy and anthemic coming out of Oldham’s mouth:
“I’m that star up in the sky
“I’m that mountain peak up high
“Hey, I made it
“I’m the world’s greatest.”
Unknown song? / New Partner (from Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues)
You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes) (from Lie Down In the Light)
Black Captain (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
The Mountain Low (from Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues)
I Heard of a Source (from Bonnie “Prince” Billy)
Wolf Among Wolves (from Master and Everyone)
Rich Wife Full of Happiness (from Ease Down the Road)
The Risen Lord (from Guarapero/Lost Blues 2)
Omaha (Everly Brothers cover from What the Brothers Sang)
Death to Everyone (from I See Darkness)
Horses (Sally Timms and Jon Langford cover from a Palace Music single)
The Brute Choir (from Viva Last Blues)
Love Comes to Me (from The Letting Go)
Quail and Dumplings (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit (from Palace Brothers’ There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You)
I See a Darkness (from I See Darkness)
The Weaker Soldier (from Palace Music’s Arise Therefore)
Gulf Shore (from Palace Music’s Lost Blues and Other Songs)
We Are Unhappy (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
May It Always Be (from Ease Down the Road)
The World’s Greatest (R. Kelly cover from Ask Forgiveness)