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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Cedar Cultural Center (Minneapolis, MN) – Monday, December 16, 2013

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy 12/16/13
30 December 2013

When it was over it seemed astonishing, the set Will Oldham had just delivered, but I couldn’t point to a single moment that had heightened my senses for it, except maybe the first one, when he walked out and sang a traditional song called “The Banks of Red Roses,” his guitar left silent. It’s a love song that ends in murder, and Oldham is the ideal person to show off the beauty of such songs. I never get a morbid sense from his music, despite all the words that might trigger it, but instead a weirdly enduring boyish sense, innocent and wise, like the schoolboy in Au Revoir Les Enfants who doesn’t understand why his schoolmates don’t think about death.

Singing this song, to the ears of someone arriving at the show straight from his 90s Palace albums, Oldham’s voice sounded very smooth, almost new. It breaks less, it’s true, but eventually I could hear the old tone and activity, so much happening in the notes. Just as interesting as his confident delivery of this old song (amazing to me, this confidence in front of a sold-out crowd, as he’d assembled) were his comments, just after he’d sung it, about its narrative features, the way it switches from first to third person a few verses in, “as if loving is too shameful,” I think he said, or as a way to mute the fear of the murdered lover. Not long after, he played another song that carried this same feature, one of his own, memorably called “I Am A Floozy,” about a woman, it seemed, who loves the companionship of all people and will lie down with anyone, until it ends with a distinctly separate verse of one of these people. Together, these two songs explained or gave the illusion of explaining all the mysteries of the Oldham songbook, which has interested and confounded me for years, so rich with female perspective and/or homoerotic content to drool over. In his shifting pronouns, in person, I got the fullest sense of the singer’s expansive affection.

Continuing the trend of these opening songs, his set list was very particular, not nearly a catalog survey or a greatest hits, though he did at times talk about the beginnings of his career in a way that cast the show as a kind of artist’s retrospective, and he played some more famous tunes. “New Partner,” chestnut of his catalog, his “Always on My Mind” (how did I never realize it before, the words are right there in the song!), came off beautifully, as did “The Brute Choir,” “Master & Everyone,” “Raining in Darling.” Later on he played some songs learned (but not all of them recorded) for his recent album of Everly Brothers songs with Dawn McCarthy, What the Brothers Sang. “Kentucky,” home to Everly and Oldham alike, registered with an obvious immediacy, close to sentimentality, while “Bird Dog” was the night’s liveliest moment by far.

The Everlys might be the most famous of his sources, which are otherwise somewhat obscure, or rather, from the point of view of the artist, the inevitable outcome of unburdened intuition and inspiration. That is to say, Oldham’s music remains impervious to the wider, popular world, not so wide after all, yet he can offer oblique, sometimes hilarious commentary on it. He accused Madonna of stealing his material (via time travel, I assume, as the song he named was “Oh Father”), and, in playing “Werner’s Last Blues to Blokbuster,” noted the different spelling and beauty of its featured word and how time has recently righted its hideous miscasting. His own act of reclamation, put fancifully by him: “Plant the seed and tenaciously wait for the winds of change to blow that franchise away.” His affection extends to words, too, often with the hope of returning them to their most beautiful usage.