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Bonnie “Prince” Billy at Manchester Cathedral

Hazel Davis enjoys an understated showman in spectacular surroundings

Published on August 4th 2010.


Bonnie “Prince” Billy at Manchester Cathedral

Gigs in churches. Hmm. I’ve had some bad experiences. For a start, I am not entirely sure God would approve of the hip-jiggling. But this Bonnie “Prince” Billy gig at Manchester’s gorgeous cathedral may have changed my mind.

Kentucky-born Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham, aka Palace Brothers, aka actor and all-round cult-type figure) is one of those astonishingly prolific artists that people have either heard of and adore passionately or die without ever acknowledging.

It’s a cracking building (dating from Saxon times as a site, but refurbished heavily in the 19th century) and clearly forward-thinking in its 21st century dealings (the rector who made a short speech before the gig kept it short and pithy as he gazed on his sudden, rapt audience).

It was as hard for me as it probably was for him to tell who was there and why. Usually with a crowd you can work out whether they’re hardcore Springsteen-style-follow-you-everywhere types or indifferent heard-you-once-on-the-radio dudes. In the queue I had overheard a couple of fellers say some friends were coming up from Aberistwyth. I was surprised – briefly – but then this is one of only three dates Bonnie “Prince” Billy was doing in the UK (the other at the 02 Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Coventry St John’s Church) and had almost completely sold out the 1000-strong venue.

Kentucky-born Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham, aka Palace Brothers, aka actor and all-round cult-type figure) is one of those astonishingly prolific artists that people have either heard of and adore passionately or die without ever acknowledging. It’s not hard to see why. His escalating vocals, fragmentary lyrics and inconclusive musicality aren’t for everyone and he defies easy categorisation, bar a vague “Americana” label.

Gazing at the gaunt bearded dudes on the front row, bathed in late, stained glass sunlight, it seemed the crowd was definitely here ‘For A Reason’ (all apart from the joker who later called out ‘I See A Darkness’ (Oldham’s 1999 hit, covered by Johnny Cash) in frustration at having to hear (gasp) ‘New Music’.

The Cairo Gang, who Oldham is here with, rather than an entirely new project for the ever-adventurous artist, is really just a formalising of his existing players. Emmett Kelly and Shahzad Ismaily with a bit more emphasis on them.

Support came from Glasgow four-piece The Trembling Bells, headed by Lavinia Blackwall, a pitch-perfect, Sandy Denny-voiced goddess, and featuring Cairo Gang drummer Alex Neilson. Their Fairport Convention (sorry, the comparisons are unavoidable but it’s a huge compliment) style set was slightly swallowed up in the largeness of the cathedral but Blackwall’s astounding vocals marched them through it.

A mustachioed and denimed Oldham hopped up on stage to join them for their own song, ‘Love’s Made An Outlaw Of My Heart’.

It’s a mark of Oldham’s style that a) he did this and b) when he appeared on stage, there was only a smattering of applause, so unassuming is he. I guess we were either too embarrassed to make a fuss or didn’t quite realise it was him (especially the idiot who was only here to hear ‘I See A Darkness’ and even then had probably only heard of Johnny Cash after he died). However, those of us stage-left did, as we’d been sitting feet from him the whole time as he clapped delightedly and supped his red wine.

The BPB/Cairo Gang set was resolutely un-hits-oriented. Kicking off with Willie Nelson’s ‘Where’s The Show/Lord Let Me Be A Man’ was a good plan as it set the scene for what was to be an atmospheric and raw evening with something vaguely familiar. The acoustic perked up when BPB was on stage and a muting of the drums meant his plaintive voice could soar all over the place quite happily. Troublesome Houses (from the new Wonder Show Of The World album) followed, rich with Emmet Kelly’s beautiful harmonies and a great platform for Oldham’s arm waving and melodica-playing. ‘Teach Me To Bear You’ (possibly my own highlight) was old-style Bonnie at his best, achingly sad and life-affirming at the same time, a song to be filed away for future heartbreak indulgence.

A smooth jazz-style interlude followed, which wasn’t really for me, nor, it seems, the crowd as they looked on slightly bemused, but he clawed it back with a beautiful rendition of ‘Merciless And Great’, dedicated sweetly to the cathedral (“In this building I meet other followers of your word”).

Another song, a bow, and then he was off. BPB being who he is, none of us really knew whether he was coming back for an encore. But he did with a gorgeous rendition of the traditional ‘I Never Thought My Love Would Leave Me’, complete with gentle calypso ending. Then ‘Go Folks, Go’, then home. Not an ‘I See A Darkness’ in sight. In your face fair-weather fan…

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dreamingAugust 4th 2010.

'I See A Darkness' is one of Will Oldham's most beautiful songs. I was sad that he didn't perform some of his earlier work. He practically croons these days and The Trembling Bells were awful. Great venue, a pleasant evening but, I think BPB is past his best.

evanderAugust 4th 2010.

Was good but not great. I don't think the wonder show of the world is one of BPB's better albums so a set-list that focused on there made for some slightly underwhelming sections.

That said, the album's highlights sounded great in the Catherdral (particuarly go folks, teach me to bear you and troublesome houses). The snippet he played of master and everyone was all too brief though.

Still undecided about the catherdral though. They definately need to stop selling glass bottles as every few minutes you heard one crash on the floor. This almost ruined magnetic fields a few months back as well.

eggmanAugust 4th 2010.

It's several years and several albums now since BPB last produced anything remarkable. It's very frustrating to see Oldham perform a set of poor material when he has a wealth of exceptional songs from which to draw.

EvanderAugust 5th 2010.

I spoke to a friend who went to the BPB show in Coventry on monday night and he played 'I see a Darkness' at that gig.

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