Bonnie “Prince” Billy | 4.10.09

promolb2.jpgThe real reason to see old Willie live is for the little things.









The Pageant, St. Louis


In October of 2003 I saw two Bonnie “Prince” Billy (nee Will Oldham) shows in London—the first was in a room that was approximately the size of my small apartment, and then the following night I saw him in a venue that I’d honestly guess was approximately twenty times that size. I’ve never been sure why he was booked that way. Comparatively, in August of 2006 Will Oldham played his first show in St. Louis in many years, and it was an in-store at Vintage Vinyl with no accompanying club date. Now, less than three years later and without major gain in popularity, he played The Pageant. Maybe he just likes the disparity between small houses and huge venues?

At either type of venue he puts on a great show. Although officially touring to promote his album Beware, the real reason to see old Willie live is for the little things: the way he dances (usually a spastic leg kick thing, though this time it was more of a prissy running-in-place thing), the way that no matter how obsessively I collect all of his recordings, of which there are a lot, I never recognize half the songs he plays, but enjoy them all to hell anyway, the way he spouts non sequiters between songs (the first thing he said to the audience after a long opening medley: “I swear, cocaine makes a guy feel so young!”), the way he will stop a song on a moment’s notice to play whatever obscure-ass song the audience is shouting at him that they want to hear.

There was a big thing he did this time, though, to contrast all of those little things; of the five times I’ve now seen him, this is the first time I’ve seen him with a backing band. Sure, I’ve seen him joined on stage before by the likes of Mick Turner or Matt Sweeney, but that’s only been for a handful of songs, and never for the entire set. This time he didn’t play a single song without his band. What’s more, the audience by and large didn’t treat him like a jukebox, so he mostly just stuck with recent recordings, rarely reaching farther back than last year’s Lie Down in the Light, and never going farther back than 1999’s I See a Darkness (the opening medley included a weird, upbeat version of Darkness’ “Nomadic Revery (All Around),” which sounds like a borderline impossibility, but actually turned out quite well). The presence of his band allowed for what was easily one of the highlights of the night, which would have been otherwise unachievable: a lovely duet with his erstwhile fiddle player Cheyenne Mize of “The Girl in Me” (available on Louisville is for Lovers, Volume 9).

The only real request that Will played all night was of the title track from I See a Darkness, which he eventually closed with, after one guy in the audience had shouted it out several times. This struck me as odd, since one of the best tracks on Beware is called “I Am Goodbye,” which seems like it would be a no-brainer to close the set with, but instead he just didn’t play it at all. | Pete Timmermann

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