Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Vienna WUK, 22 June 2008

To the WUK last night to see Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Mr Oldham had a few things to contend with, principally the searing heat (even in the late evening) and the Spain-Italy match being televised outside. But he and his polished band took it all in their stride. Perhaps too much so, for this was a gig annoyingly light on the blinding inspiration that made the early Palace records, and Oldham’s debut under the BPB name I See A Darkness, so utterly essential.

The country-ish twang that has been a part of Oldham’s musical vocabulary for years has gradually made its way to the forefront of his sound. His current sound is defined at least as much by Ruby Kash’s violin and her feathery vocal harmonies as it is by Oldham’s distinctively quavery voice. Equally prominent in the mix is the slinky percussion of Michael Zerang (also to be seen in a somewhat different environment as one of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet). As a result, the songs shuffle amiably by without evoking much of the sense of darkness referred to in the title of Oldham’s 1999 masterpiece, or the death’s head skull on its cover. Moments of drama and clarity abound, but all too often the songs just stop, as if they can’t be bothered to lift themselves to new heights.

Oldham is a watchable but rather awkward performer. Looking like an old-time American preacher with his impressively bushy beard, he throws striking poses with his guitar and sings directly to the audience with oratorical zeal. Between songs, however, he becomes humourless and taciturn. The most he ever says to the audience is when he introduces Zerang, saying something like “the most reliable friend is synthetic” and guffawing loudly to himself at this baffling statement. The moment contributes to an impression of distance and diffidence that the music, for all its fine and arresting qualities, is fatally unable to dispel.

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