Monday, May 25, 2009

Singing from my little point and aching in my every joint

I'm not quite sure I can do justice to last Thursday's Bonnie 'Prince' Billy show at the Apollo Theater due to my lengthy delay in writing about it. Thankfully, it was an impressionistic enough experience with enough highlights that I should still be able to cobble together something at least moderately representative. Here goes.

I arrived at the theater with younger brother/straight baller Rob Holowka at around 8:30. I'd had little prior experience with this part of Harlem, and it seemed pretty legit. However, once inside the theater, it was nothing but young white, hip folks, so I don't think I quite got the authentic Apollo experience. I guess I'll have to start hitting up Amature night with greater frequency. 

The opening act, Lightening Dust I believe, were on when we got in, and they were pretty dull. They played electric folk, and their frontwoman sang with a vibrato, but that's about all I remember. In between sets I wandered over to the bar to try to get some water. The wait lasted a grueling 20 minutes at least, and BPB took the stage with his band while I was still in line. After finally making it to the bar, turning down the $4 water, then returning to my seat, I suddenly recognized the words Will Oldham was singing: "Your face, your race, the way that you walk." Realizing I had just missed most of a cover of Bowie's '5 Years,' I grew irritated. '5 Years' is not only one of my favorite Bowie songs, but in my opinion one of the greatest album opening tracks of all time. Goddamn it. But I digress. Oldham had brought quite an ensemble on stage with him, between 7-8 pieces depending on if Matt Sweeney or the saxophonist were on stage. They were obviously well rehearsed, and made wondrous country-folk together. Of particular note was fiddle player and chief back-up singer, Cheyenne Meyers. I can say without reservation that this woman was an actual 10. In addition, her singing and fiddling were fantastic. Even her name is hot. I mean, 'Cheyenne'? Come on! Remarkably, however, even she was unable to upstage the presence of Will Oldham. I'd gone in with some reservations about the quality of the showmanship and performances (I mean, this guy never tours!). But Oldham leaped around stage, making wildly overdramatic gesticulations, screwing his face into exaggerated expressions, and staring wildly into the crowd. He was very economical with his between song banter, but this didn't put me off at all. He turned in some incredible vocals too, much better than what I'd been expecting from listening to his albums. And that he was able to keep his pipes going strong through the nearly 2 hour long set was all the more impressive.

If the performances of Oldham and his band were pleasantly surprising, the set list left me a bit disappointed. Once again, I had no idea what to expect in this regard going in, although I knew I probably wouldn't be familiar with a lot of the material covered given my relative unfamiliarity with most of the post I See A Darkness pre Beware BPB catalogue. Surprisingly, the band hardly touched Beware for the first hour or so if there set, but finally settled into a string of strong performances from the album. 'You Don't Love Me' and 'I Am Goodbye' were particularly rewarding, although the band left out a few of my favorites from the LP, including the title track and 'I Don't Belong to Anyone.' Overall, the songs came off as much more lush and exciting live than on the relatively turgid album. BPB and co. also took on a few Palace era tunes, notably 'The Sun Highlights the Lack in Each' and 'A Group of Women' off Arise, Therefore. The full band dynamic added new dimensions to these songs, turning their skeletal structures into fully-formed pieces that worked out wonderfully. In general, most of the the songs with which I was unfamiliar were rousing and exciting. One of the performances, for which guitarist and Superwolf collaborator Matt Sweeney took stage, was particularly memorable. It involved a story about a dude unwilling to give up his lady to another dude, and involved a campy gothic spoken word interlude in which the aforementioned Cheyenne and Oldham talked solemnly about an act of adultery committed by the former. It was exactly the kind of fun I'd been hoping for going into this concert. 

The show ended with a corny hootenany freestyle session with all of BPB's band and the members of Lightening Dust, and one song encore, brining the set to nearly 2 hours. It was a fantastic experience overall, but I can't help but think I would have enjoyed a more minimalist show even more. I envision Will Oldham and maybe a couple other dudes on stage, back in the Palace days, playing that incarnation's emotionally-bare songs of pure desperation. Those are the Will Oldham moments that speak most to me, the unfiltered expressions of the id from a confused young man. Thursday night's show, in contrast, had an air of maturity, by one who'd finally come to grips with and even grown comfortable with himself, and his station in life. It seems that all of those ideas Oldham expressed in the shimmering early BPB song 'A Minor Place' have come to fruition.  That was the kind of show I saw on Thursday, and all of that considered, it was pulled off very well.

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