The last time Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy played in Vienna was back in 2008, on a blazing hot summer’s evening at the WUK. The heat inside the Arena for Will Oldham’s return visit in July was equally oppressive, but on this occasion Oldham and his immaculate band seemed more interested in keeping a lid on the atmosphere than in raising the onstage temperature by more than a degree or two. This was a jaunty, amiable canter through the Oldham back catalogue (with a sprinkling of cover versions) that did a great job of showcasing his immense talents as a songwriter, but did so at the expense of the disquiet that lurks at the heart of Oldham’s best work.
I freely admit to being no great authority on Oldham’s work, having only climbed on board with 1999’s breakthrough I See A Darkness LP and been a follower up to and including 2006’s troubling The Letting Go. Having doubled back and devoured the earlier, devastating Palace Brothers/Music records, I pretty much jumped off the bus with 2008’s Lie Down in the Light, a perky set that left me bemused rather than (as I probably should have been) cheered by Oldham’s apparent eagerness to move from darkness into light. A run of inconsequential later releases (2011’s sombre Wolfroy Goes to Town excepted) merely reinforced the impression that here was an artist who had fatally lost his way.
This impression was not in any way dispelled by July’s concert, in which a large and appreciative Arena audience saw Oldham deliver a set that drew heavily on those recent records and was, as a result, distinctly underwhelming. With the rickety Appalachian sound pushed to the forefront, Oldham’s blend of country and folk was relaxed to the point of nonchalance. As song after song drifted past on a bed of twangy guitar, pleasantly shuffling rhythms and frankly unnecessary saxophone, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that this stuff was being dispatched in an unforgivably casual manner. Nowhere was the problem more evident than in the treatment of “I See A Darkness” itself, which was entirely drained of its sepulchral elegance and reinvented as a dire, bouncy singalong.
Oldham remains a gifted lyricist, uniquely able to evoke love, loss and doubt in words of haunting and skeletal beauty. His voice, meanwhile, has a reedy, quavering quality that I find very appealing. But he has a weirdly declamatory way of singing that undermines the broken dignity of his texts and makes them sound like so much bluster. When you add the inadvisably middle-of-the-road arrangements, the outcome was a gig as baffling as it was frustrating.