Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Town Hall, Manhattan, NY, December 8, 2010

by Johnny Walker (Black)

Will Oldham, better known through his most famous alter-ego, Bonnie "Prince" Billy (BPB), is a musical chameleon, whipping through styles of music faster than most artists put out albums. From Velvet Underground-style garage rock to southern gothic alterna-folk to laidback country, the genre-hopping Oldham is prolific and very restless, yet he manages to maintain a high level of quality control no matter what musical style he is currently enamored of.

He brought a couple of his current musical muses to the Town Hall in Manhattan this past Wednesday evening.

The first, The Babblers, is a brand new Oldham project launched in conjunction with Chicago-based singer Angel Olsen. As their name indicates, the raison d’etre of The Babblers, aside from allowing Oldham to investigate another genre of music—Euro art rock, this time—is to play the cult classic album Babble: Songs For Lonely Lovers, by Dagmar Krause and the late Kevin Coyne, in sequence onstage.

 The Babblers appeared in suitably eccentric garb for the upcoming art-rock extravaganza, dressed in multi-colored pajama onesies, Oldham himself adding a blue do-rag and shades plus hoodie to obscure his image as much as possible (the trademark beard was a dead giveaway, however) and place the focus on the music. 

The stage had the feel of cheap hotel room, possibly the scene of an illicit tryst between two lovers, with some crappy junk shop lamps and a few Xmas tree lights providing the sole illumination of the band.

What could have been a dilettante-ish disaster actually turned out to be one of the surprise musical highlights of the year. Though a fan of both Coyne and Krause, I had somehow missed out on Babble; its songs seemed brand new in the hands of these Babblers, and indeed, many in the audience probably thought they were hearing original material.

"By the time Oldham’s and Olsen’s voices entwined on the

album’s final song, “It Doesn’t Really Matter – We Know Who

You Are,” they had the audience eating out of their palms."

Olsen, also wearing a pair of outsized shades, was especially impressive in the Krause role, whether strongly emoting cabaret-style on the hypnotic rocker “Sweetheart” or crooning on “My Mind’s Joined Forces.”

BPB himself channeled his inner Iggy Pop as he gyrated across the stage and generally “rocked out” on the album’s harder numbers: while Oldham’s tremulous quaver is nothing much like Coyne’s raspy blues shout, both voices are highly idiosyncratic and that worked to Oldham’s benefit.

By the time Oldham’s and Olsen’s voices entwined on the album’s final song, “It Doesn’t Really Matter – We Know Who You Are,” -- with the rest of the Babblers eventually harmonizing along as the band picked up their gear, turned out the lamps and left the stage -- they had the audience eating out of their palms.

After a 30 minute break and a change of attire—suits for the men, this time, plus some black eyeliner for Oldham—BPB and his latest backing band (the Babblers minus the onesies and shades) appeared onstage. The vibe and the persona now changed – even Oldham’s body movements were different, fidgety and less fluid, as he often sang while balancing on one leg, like an Ian Anderson without the flute.

The first number, a cover of Willie Nelson’s “December Day,” went well with the suits, as Oldham gave it a classy, Sinatra-esque vocal treatment.From there, it was a fleshed-out rendition of the excellent “Troublesome Houses” from his latest, The Wonder Show of the World.

"At times, as on “That’s What Our Love Is,” the breezy,

summery melodicism recalled 1970s soft-rock staples like

America--if they had penned lines like “the smell of your box on my moustache.”

This and other numbers gave Oldham’s “Cairo Gang” partner, guitarist and vocalist Emmett Kelly, a chance to shine: Kelly provided strong backing vocals, his voice often meshing with the much-improved pipes of Oldham and the talented Olson (sadly under-utilized in this portion of the evening’s festivities) to create lovely three-part harmonies.

At times, as on “That’s What Our Love Is,” the breezy, summery melodicism recalled 1970s soft-rock staples like America--if they had penned lines like “the smell of your box on my moustache.”

When things got just a little too groovy, Kelly found spaces in the music to erupt with some fiery lead guitar, at other moments adding some crunchy, Neil Young-like electric rhythm playing. 

Other highlights included a dark treatment of “You Are Lost” (from 2009’s Beware) and two numbers from Oldham’s 2006 high-water mark The Letting Go: “So Everyone” and “That’s What Our Love Is.”  Oldham’s collaborator on 2005’s Superwolf, Matt Sweeney, also made a guest appearance, he and Kelly kicking up a guitar-driven fuss on the aforementioned album’s “Only Someone Running.”

By the time of the last encore, the appropriately titled “Go Folks, Go” we had been treated to 2-and-a-half hours of solid music. The Town Hall audience was appreciative, and seemed to want to stay all night, but Oldham gestured to the exits and gently admonished us: “So go, folks, go.”

We reluctantly gathered our belongings as the band did the same, like The Babblers still singing their final song’s refrain as they left the stage.

Set list:

December Day (Willie Nelson)
Troublesome Houses
You Win
So Everyone
That's What Our Love Is
Heart's Arms
You Are Lost
The Sounds Are Always Begging
Strange Form of Life
Only Someone Running
With Cornstalks or Among Them
Cursed Sleep
Teach  Me To Bear You

It’s Not For Me To Understand (Willie Nelson)
Ohio River Boat Song
Go, Folks, Go

Footage of Coyne and Krause performing Babble can be seen here.

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