Bonnie "Prince" Billy at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/16/13
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
With Bitchin Bajas
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Monday, December 16, 2013
When Will Oldham walked on stage at the Cedar last night, he did so without any introduction. He simply ambled up to the microphone, guitar in hand, and slung it over his shoulder, almost unnoticed at first by the sold-out crowd. For someone who's made a habit of taking on characters over the years -- chiefly, of course, that of Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- he was as unassuming as could be, dressed in a blue gingham shirt and faded jeans. Only his bald head and thick gnarl of a beard gave him away.
And then so, too, did his voice.
There were truly no frills about Oldham's performance Monday night, and he set the tone accordingly with the opening song, "The Banks of Red Roses," which he sang acapella. Even his acoustic guitar, his lone accompaniment, would lie dormant. The remainder of the evening would revolve around Oldham's voice and the strange power that it possesses, with the guitar providing little more than an anchor along the way.
Oldham's is not a particularly good voice. It's brittle, often goes off-key, and cracks and breaks when he ventures outside of its narrow range. But it's those very limitations that he uses to help color each of his songs; in fact, he's created a whole world with it, one of darkness and letting go, where nature becomes its own twisted character and even God has to search to find people. If such a world did anything other than crack or break around the edges, it couldn't be real.
He can use it to surprisingly dramatic effect, too. On "Heart's Arms," in particular, Oldham really got behind the words and belted them out with full force, that raspy warble turning into something strange and beautiful as it morphed into nothing more than hoots and hollers. You almost wondered just how well he could actually sing if he really tried -- but then that's the trick: Oldham takes on the voice of his characters, inhabits them and their imperfections.
It wasn't just Oldham's characters that he took on, either. One of the more cryptic songs of the night, "64," was based on the verses of an Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. He worked in a couple old folk songs, as well, including opener "Red Roses," each of which worked in perfectly with the fabric of Oldham's originals: together, they formed a tapestry that was ancient and weathered, parables with no clear moral code. Even the pair of Everly Brothers covers felt at home.
Which is why it made so much sense to showcase Oldham on his own, especially at a venue like the Cedar. Sure, it would have been interesting to see him with a band behind him, but then that likely would've dulled the effect. Certainly, it would have made things less intimate.
That intimacy allowed Oldham the storyteller to be on display, as well, a mode he quickly got into between songs. Those stories tended to be on the bawdy side, too, as he took credit for helping run Blockbuster out of business (thanks to his "Last Blues for Blockbuster"), claimed that he and Madonna steal music from each other, and explained how "You Have Cum in Your Hair's" title related to a friend's dad's funeral. (It's not as dirty as you'd think, honest.)
Oldham took requests on a couple of occasions -- on one of them, the crowd reacted so enthusiastically, some standing up and shouting, that Oldham almost looked like he was going to fall over -- provided one of the night's other highlights. He wound up playing "The Brute Choir," assuring the crowd that "that one's easy." Then, on the spur of the moment, he segued straight into "New Partner" -- a fact that no doubt sat well with the Viva Last Blues fans.
For a few minutes there, it seemed even Oldham was lost in his music, following it where it would take him. He closed his eyes, bobbing his head up and down and back and forth. He leaned in close to the mike, head down, then leaned back -- stretching the notes as far as he could.
Critics Bias: Never seen Billy before. Not disappointed.
The Crowd: Bundled up
Random Notebook Dump: Bitchin Bajas were the lone openers. They consisted of three pensive, bearded young men who used a surprising array of instruments for the ambient instrumentals -- including guitar, oboe, saxophone, and flute. It had its moments.
The Banks of Red Roses
Easy Does It
I Am a Floozy
You Can't Hurt Me Now
Werner's Last Blues to Blockbuster
South Side of the World
Master and Everyone
Beware Your Only Friend
You Have Cum in You Hair and Your Dick is Hanging Out
The Brute Choir
Raining in Darling
I'm On My Way Home Again
Idea and Deed
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