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Bonnie Does Irving

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Dusted's Ben Tausig witnesses a rambunctious Will Oldham on Jan. 29 at Irving Plaza in New York City

Bonnie Does Irving

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s ambitious approach to live performance makes every one of his shows an adventure, or a crapshoot if you prefer. Continuity is not in the cards, nor adherence to the poetic sound cultivated on a substantial catalogue of recorded material, nor setlists; really nothing but the band and what strikes them, which dynamic tends to produce shows about as predictable as chaos. That’s just what happens at a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy concert. You and I, the ticket-purchasing public, so accustomed to paying $15 for bands to do clichéd impressions of themselves, have to readjust.

Will Oldham is the given name of the beautiful and royal heir-to-an-imaginary-throne Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and his highness played January 29th at Irving Plaza in New York City. Oldham’s current tour is in support of the new album Master and Everyone (Drag City), which is full of thin, dark songs, chief subject matters being divorce and loneliness, sparsely recorded and with a well-selected minimum of backing.

Live and in contrast to the album, the songs from Master were performed in a punk rock, alt-country, Mekons style, with an accordion and Billy yelling the lyrics those familiar with the album are used to hearing in a whisper. The band played through the vast majority of the new CD, maybe all of it, sort of in the same order, but with the arrangements all gone haywire. Billy assumed a spastic demeanor, jumping around through formerly-tender ballads like “Wolf Among Wolves” and “Ain’t You Wealthy, Ain’t You Wise?” while the accordionist deftly played most of the lead melodies. The highlight of this portion was “Hard Life,” the last and most lyrically compelling song on Master. With the memorable refrain “It’s a hard life, for a man with no wife,” “Hard Life” is the best summary of the despair over failed love which informs this record. A spirited live version did it proper duty.

The feel of the show changed very much after the new material had been exhausted. The lineup shifted at least twice, allowing Bonnie Billy to play, for instance, a handful of intimate songs with less or no accompaniment, and later to return to a full band. By far the best material in the middle of the show came from his 2001 album, Ease Down the Road, from which was extracted “A King at Night” and “Careless Love,” among others. “A King at Night” lent itself well to a loud and monumental rendition, wherein Billy sang every line with the deliberateness of a detective announcing the name of a guilty party. “Careless Love” took a bit more imagination to compute, however, since the album version has but a grim, quiet organ as an augment to Billy’s half-sung poem, and live it was played as a honky-tonk number. For the last song of the encore, “New Partner” from Viva Last Blues, Will and his brother Ned Oldham played a straightforward version by themselves. “New Partner” was chosen at the shockingly harmonious request of the audience.

Rarely has Will Oldham, under any alias, recorded his music with the level of energy and noise exhibited at Irving Plaza and, so I hear, elsewhere on the Master and Everyone tour (Only “Work Hard, Play Hard” comes to mind as a dissenting example). The sporadic animation of the live show clearly surprised the crowd, probably garnering mixed reactions. Indeed it requires a certain willingness, not to mention positive alignment of taste, for a fan to enjoy familiar songs played in a completely different style from the way it sounds on the record. Such an approach can ruin a song for certain listeners and give others a fresh appreciation; it cuts both ways, but Bonnie Billy can only be praised for keeping things interesting.

By Ben Tausig

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