Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at the Vic

Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) is a great enigma, an artist who’s hard to explain, with a walrus mustache that seems to hide half his face. He tends to hide from public exposure, too, though he did some interviews recently to coincide with the release of his new album, Beware. The Jan. 5 feature story in The New Yorker gave a fascinating glimpse of what it’s like hanging out with Oldham in his hometown of Louisville, along with the strange information that his musical idols are Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and R. Kelly. But as with any piece of writing about Oldham, the article still left you feeling like you don’t really know this guy or what makes him tick.
(He was also interviewed recently on NPR.)

Maybe his fans, including me, are just building up this sense of mystique around Oldham. But even if he weren’t such a mysterious man, his music would deserve the mythology. I’m still filling in some of the holes in my collection of Oldham music (he has released a lot of records over the years under various names), but it’s clear to me that he is one of our great songwriters today. His previous two albums, The Letting Go and Lie Down in the Light, ranked among my favorites of recent years, and the newest one, Beware, seems destined for similar greatness after a few listens. This one’s a typical mix of Oldham’s folk and country music, along with some peculiar touches of strings and horns. At times, it veers into the ornate orchestral territory of Astral Weeks or Nick Drake’s more symphonic music.

Oldham played Saturday night (March 14) at the Vic Theatre, his first concert in Chicago since a 2006 show at the Portage Theatre, and this one was a doozy. He had a terrific band playing behind him, including a couple of very talented musicians I often see around Chicago, Emmett Kelly on guitar and Josh Abrams on bass. Cheyenne Mize played violin and sang all the female leads and harmony parts, and one of the best percussionists around, Jim White, played drums. It’s a music-critic cliché to call music “organic,” but that is the best word I can think of to describe what this band was doing. The songs seemed to grow on the stage right in front of us, as Kelly played figures on his guitar halfway between melodic leads and rhythmic chords and the rest of the musicians fell into patterns they seemed to be inventing on the spot. They looked to each other for cues on what to do next, as if they were still learning these songs, but it never sounded unrehearsed in a sloppy way.

Oldham moved with peculiar gestures, kicking his legs backwards, flailing his arms. Are these actorly affectations or examples of the natural way he dances and expresses himself? Oldham is an actor as well as a singer, so one wonders how much of his stage manners are a planned performance and how much is spontaneous. Wherever those moves come from, they’re odd. Oldham clearly hasn’t read the official manual on how rock stars are supposed to move onstage, but he’s all the better for it. He comes across as a guy who lacks some of the inhibitions normal people feel, someone who’s not afraid of making a fool of himself.

The concert got off to a strong start, but then it turned into something truly exceptional when Oldham played his sixth song of the night, “Blood Embrace.” Beginning in a hush, the song built to a dramatic crescendo, and Oldham looked as if he was being transported by the magic. Jim White knocked over one of his cymbals as the song crashed to an end.

A few songs later, Bonnie “Prince” Billy played “A Minor Place” from his classic album I Saw a Darkness, and the band made that song sound like the anthem it deserves to be, the backup musicians blending their voices in woozy gospel harmonies. The way Kelly was playing the chords, it almost sounded like the band was about to break out into a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”

Oldham followed up that song with “The Seedling” and “I Called You Back,” both from The Letting Go, and it become clear that this was one show where the performer was pouring everything he had into his songs. He did not let up, either. A little while later, as he let the band play an instrumental break in “Even If Love,” Oldham raised his eyes toward the ceiling. He seemed to be shaking all over. Then he broke the spell by asking sardonically, “What do you have to do to get a disco ball turned on?” (The Vic’s lighting guy responded with a disco-ball-like effect, though the actual ball itself never did light up.)

After this amazing performance, I’m still not sure who Bonnie “Prince” Billy is, but I don’t have any doubts about his talents.

SETLIST (missing a couple of song titles)
Sheep (from Ease Down the Road)
Hard Life (from Master and Everyone)
You Are Lost (from Beware)
How About Thank You (from a new 10-inch record)
A King at Night (from Ease Down the Road)
Blood Embrace (from Superwolf)
Lay and Love (from The Letting Go)
Where is the Puzzle? (from Lie Down in the Light)
I Send My Love to You (from Sings Greatest Palace Music)
A Minor Place (from I See a Darkness)
The Seedling (from The Letting Go)
I Called You Back (from The Letting Go)
Without Work, You Have Nothing (from Beware)
Beware Your Only Friend (from Beware)
Careless Love (from Ease Down the Road)
Even If Love (from Master and Everyone)
You Want That Picture (from Lie Down in the Light)
Nomadic Revery (All Around) (from I See a Darkness)
I’ll Be Glad (from Lie Down in the Light)
You Don’t Love Me (from Beware)
Nobody’s Darling on Earth (cover)

(Sorry, no photos!)