I’ve seen Will Oldham live a handful of times over the
years. The first was back in the mid-nineties when the Sausage Machine ran a
great club night at a pub in Mornington Crescent, and the Palace Brothers
played a kind of double-header with Bill Callagahan’s Smog. I was there for the
latter, but left eager to check out the albums of the dude in the straw hat.
There was something about his cracked voice; and the warm organ, hushed tones
and waft of Leonard Cohen on the Hope ep won me over for ever. I saw him at the Union Tavern, and old working men’s club and briefly a hip music venue near Tottenham court Road, around the time of I See a Darkness – a great gig from memory, which included a lengthy talk about Rwanda as a kind of encore. A few years later, Bonnie Prince Billy strode onto the Barbican stage in Jesus sandals and billowing orange trousers, with a touring band that must have been approaching double figures – all ominous signs, but my only complaint was that there was too much accordion, smothering everything that evening. Two more shows empires were different again – fleeting moments of a performer live, which, as BPB discusses in his new book – Will Oldham on Bonnie Prince Billy — is as it should be: no two performances the
same, and all conducted with good faith given the necessary evil of having to
tour (he’s too generous to Bjork fans who heckle him though).
The records are kind of a bit like that too: an ongoing journey, or flow, a work in progress, I guess. I feel embarrassed now to have concurred, in these blogs (not that
anyone noticed, I’m sure), with a strain of thought that states Bonnie Prince B
is way too prolific these days and needs a break. Having read his book –
conducted as a lengthy interview with the musicican/writer Alan Licht – you’re
left with the feeling that, if anything, the gaps between records are
unnecessarily long: it’s clearly spuming out of him; he writes and records as
others breathe, and it’s us listeners who are probably not paying enough
attention. That said, if push came to shove, it would probably be the
double-vinyl collections, Lost Blues and other Songs and Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 I’d have with me on my tropical desert island. There’s just something in the voice that hasn’t fully matured and the production that isn’t fully realised. Alive, free and still intimate, the newer records are great, but just sound slightly too clean and spacious somehow – but then again you can’t go on putting fuzzy ambience, bits of radio static and the odd wibble of electronic sound and undertow of organ in there for ever. And whenever the next pricey, double-7” pack is out, I’ll be there, shelling out.
In just over an hour you can’t begin to scratch the surface,
even attempt to cover all bases. I switched most of the seven tunes in this
programme several times over, had three minor breakdowns over tracks that didn’t
quite make it, and now have enough converted to MP3 for several broadcasts. If
you don’t really know Bonnie Prince Billy’s stuff, jump in, jump in, come in,
come in . . .
(nb at one point I introduce a Will Oldham and Susanna — of Susanna & the Magical Orchestra fame — 7″, then promptly go on to play Will Oldham’s cover of David Allan Coe’s ‘In My Mind’ 7″ . . . great as that is, I’ll play the correct record next month. And the first two tracks, which I somehow lopped off the running order, are ‘Always Bathing in the Evening’ by Will Oldham, then Strangers by Lotus Plaza . . . right, where is my medication?. . .)