This Weekend I Saw Bonnie "Prince" Billy TWICE!!!
* But for those who don't have the patience to read as I go on and on about Will Oldham, I want to slip in a link to this great article by Steven Millhauser, about the difference between the short story and the novel.
OK! So the first time I saw Will Oldham was on Friday. A very nice friend of mine found tickets to a sold-out show at the Swedish American Hall.
The interior of the Swedish American looks suspiciously like a Masonic Temple because it's ringed by these carved chairs that I think are attached to the floor, and the white plaster walls and ceilings are detailed Bavarian-Style with dark-stained crossbeams. All the textiles in the room seem kind of musty and dusty, from the worn chair cushions to the stage curtain. We got a great seat up near the stage, front and center.
The opening act was Jon Langford's Skull Orchard, which, by the way, was really fun because Jon Langford's from Wales, and the Welsh Men's Choir accompanied him, and, and, and, my friend JCP is from Wales, so of course I thought of him a lot during the first half of the show. Did you know that Tom Jones fathered many a Welshman? We'll never know how many unless the mothers in Wales decide to 'fess up.
And in the second act Will Oldham came on wearing a pair of overalls. He had a beer bottle in each pocket and a yellow plastic kazoo in his teeth. His accompanists included a banjo player, a fiddler, a mandolin player, a guy on a standup bass, and I think there was a percussionist, too, though for some reason I can't remember that detail.
Well, okay, I know why I can't remember. I was pretty entranced by the Bonnie Prince his Royal Self. At times, Will Oldham seemed to be possessed by some kind of hillbilly philosopher. More than that, he seemed capable of raising the dead with his voice. While singing, Oldham stood balancing on one leg, the lower half of his body in eagle position, gesticulating with one arm, while with the other he held the mike stand steady. Each number was a new interpretation of one of his original songs, performed in a slightly self-mocking way that cast new light on the shadow side of the songs, beyond the obvious shadow stuff we get from the lyrics. If that makes any kind of sense.
Anyway, I saw him for the second time today, Sunday, at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is this free concert in Golden Gate Park. Here's how he's described on the biographical handout sheet I picked up at the festival entrance:
Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) has been called an "Applachian post-punk solipsist" and is notable for his unique voice, which has been described as "a fragile sort-of warble frittering around haunted melodies in the American folk and country tradition."
That's pretty good, yeah?!
The concert attracts tons of people and their dogs. The people are very polite, and they wear clean cotton shirts with lots of mother-of-pearl snaps. The dogs, however, are nude. I couldn't get anywhere near the stage so I wound up on a hillside, underneath a very dry-looking Monterey Pine, just listening. It was nice to sit in the sun, and to think about life, about the brevity of it, and how in its brevity life is more beautiful.
Which is the central theme of Oldham's opening number, "Death to Everyone." On the 1999 album where it first appeared, Oldham sings this particular song in a slow, mournful way, quietly, using this very simple arrangement. Currently, however, he delivers it in a sort of camptown revival style with lots of strummy rhythm mandolin behind a kazoo. You could really dance to this version if you wanted to, while the original version of "Death To Everyone" would be more suitable listened to while lying on your back with a wet cloth over your eyes. I think the song is about how death makes even the worst times seem like great times, because life is all we get & the whole reason it's so great is that we don't get much of it. So the song is a celebration of life and death, both.
The lovely, horrible image of brevity showed up at the end of the concert, too: after playing "You Want That Picture," Oldham talked about how we live about six feet above the ground, and then we all wind up about six feet below it, and below it is where we spend the vast majority of time. Which, he pointed out, is comparable to the duration of a song when contrasted with the duration of an entire life. In other words, a song in the context of a life is a microcosm of an entire life within history. And certain moments seem to go on and on, containing everything in the entire universe. If that makes sense.