Gig Review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Bridgewater Hall, 24th January 2007

Joanna Newsom’s wonderful performance at the Bridgewater last week was always going to be in the back of my mind when we returned to the hall on Wednesday night to see Will Oldham play his first gig in our fair city for quite a few years. It would be grossly unfair to compare the two: Newsom was born to play venues like this whereas I imagine Oldham’s reaction when he saw the hall for the first time to be along the lines of “What the fuck!”. After leading his band on to great applause he muttered something about not being used to playing such formal occasions, though he seemed to be dressed for the part, with dark suit and black shirt offsetting the waywardness of his beard.

They kicked off with “The Lion Lair”, a marvelously raucous reworking of the Ease Down The Road track, and followed that with the rather less successful reworking of “The Ohio River Boat Song” from Greatest Palace Music album. Will certainly doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels and most of what he played was radically different from the quieter, more pastoral, studio versions of the songs. “A Suckers Evening” throbbed with a brutal menace while “Master And Everyone” was practically unrecognisable, all scruffy guitar and wailed vocals. And therein lay the problem: the songs in the form presented did not suit the reverential environment of the classical music hall. Where guitars rose politely from small speakers suspended high above the stage they should have been roaring out of stacks either side. Piano trills should have drifted in and out of earshot with the ebb and flow of a jostling crowd. Drums and bass should have been thundering through our bodies. Instead we sat there, quelled by the austerity of our surroundings and our naturally British trait of deep repression.

Still, the band put in a great performance with Oldham in mesmerising form as they rattled through songs old and new, borrowed and blue, his unique, powerful voice filling every corner of the hall as he twitched, shivered and kicked his way through the likes of “All Gone, All Gone” and John Martyn’s “John The Baptist” as if possessed. The band were joined, belatedly, by Dawn McCarthy to add her vocals to tracks from the latest Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy opus The Letting Go. McCarthy, who had missed her first cue to appear even after Will had the whole audience call her name, was also support for the night under the moniker Faun Fables and put in a fairly entertaining set of acoustic folk, accompanying herself on guitar and occasionally singing a capella while stomping vigourously on the stage. The ancient Greek folk song she played and the song which she claimed was a big hit in Poland in the Seventies broke up the set nicely but ennui set in during the final two songs.

McCarthy’s eventual appearance during the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy set was greeted warmly by the crowd and the Letting Go songs were superbly executed with McCarthy’s celestial wail circling Oldham’s earthly warble just as it does on the album. Though “Wai” didn’t work too well despite being one of the quieter tracks of the evening there was a storming version of “Strange Form Of Life” and a stunning, haunting “Then The Letting Go” which surpassed its recorded counterpart.

The encore included the excellent single “Cursed Sleep”, a soporific “You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hanging Out” and things were wrapped up nicely with a joyful cover of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again”. Though I enjoyed the performance I left slightly disappointed. The Bonnie Prince should have been tearing up the Academy with this set; for the Bridgewater Hall the hushed beauty of these songs’ originals would have been much more appropriate and would have made for a more satisfying evening.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Then The Letting Go

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Master And Everyone (live)

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