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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy review

| Music, Venues | 04/08/2017

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Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Last Thursday, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy played a soulful, stylistically varied stripped-back set at Islington’s atmospheric Union Chapel.

Will Oldham is a riddle.  He’s recorded tracks constantly since the early nineties, carving out a cult following whether performing under his given name, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy or variations of the word ‘Palace’.  He’s developed his own brand of troubled folk with a punk aesthetic, written for John Legend and had a song covered by Johnny Cash.  And yet he’s never had what could truly be termed a ‘hit’, neither is he widely recognised in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky – let alone in the UK.

Befitting one of music’s great enigmas, Oldham walked purposefully onto the dark stage in a pair of white slacks and a light blue shirt scattered with silver reflective stars, before starting his minimalist show with barely a word or smile.

20374428_10158995179975063_2528794910031396037_nThe decision to eschew a backing band – or even, during his gospel cover of Richard Thompson’s Strange Affair, any musical accompaniment at all – meant the focus was entirely on Oldham’s voice.

This was a smart move given the quality of his chords, and the whispered lyrics from which he likes to launch into the kind of long, howling vocals that carried wonderfully up to the venue’s vaulted ceiling in Willow Tree Bend and The Everley Brothers’ Omaha.  It was a shame there weren’t even more of these moments in the set.

However, the setlist wasn’t chosen to tee up Oldham’s troubled Appalachian wolfcry.  It was intended to demonstrate his range – oscillating between campfire country, festival folk and lilting love songs – and, in most covers, to honour “those who’ve blazed a trail to create space for people like me”.

Songs from the late Merle Haggard featured heavily.  Earlier this year, Oldham released an album of Haggard covers entitled Best Troubadour, such was the country singer’s influence on his musical style.  But despite the soft, warbling beauty of Haggard’s Roses In The Winter, Oldham’s voice was best showcased in tracks written for that purpose, namely I Called You Back, the Walter Whitman-inspired Black Captain and – by far his most eagerly received number – a movingly understated version of I See A Darkness.  Those songs were worth the ticket price alone.

There were faults with the performance: Oldham’s initial reluctance to engage with the audience made early numbers – preceded only by a title and songwriter name – a little stilted, especially given their soft endings.  However, the mood relaxed when Oldham had a brain lapse and needed to mumble through part of No Time To Cry.  From then on, he was more expressive – even witty when discussing the Nashville origins of his “fucking stupid shirt” – and marginally freer in his movements.

But this show wasn’t about sharp repartee, body language or impressive effects.  It was about one man’s voice.  And as Oldham left the stage with a short, straight-backed bow, he’d achieved what he set out to.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy performed at Union Chapel on Thursday 27th July 2017 supported by London Sacred Harp.  As he has little social media presence, the best way to keep informed of upcoming projects and appearances is to follow his label @Dominorecordco or fan pages such as @MoreRevery on Twitter.

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