Sunday, December 12, 2010

Live: Bonnie Prince Billy & The Cairo Gang, 12/8/2010, At Town Hall, NYC

After a brief intermission, which followed an outstanding opening set by Will Oldham's new project, The Babblers, Bonnie Prince Billy (Oldham) and his band took the stage. The performers shed their camouflage pajamas for formal attire, and proceeded to deliver an expertly and gracefully performed selection of Oldham's work.

The performance opened with an elegant rendition of Willie Nelson's "December Day", from Mr. Nelson's Yesterday's Wine album. Dressed in a suit, eyes shadowed in eyeliner, nails painted silver, and donning a black do-rag, Mr. Oldham led the group from this gentle homage to Nelson, right into "Troublesome Houses" from his excellent album with The Cairo Gang (guitarist Emmett Kelly), The Wonder Show of The World. The pairing of these gentle opening tunes set the tone for the night's set.

Next up was Lie Down In The Light's "So Everyone" followed by "That's What Our Love Is". The show continued to unfold with tunes that allowed Mr. Oldham the space to project the range of his distinctive voice throughout the venue. The accompanying band of stellar musicians partnered well with him, crafting a range of fresh variations to present the themes of Oldham's musical trajectory in new ways. Stylistically, the renditions of the tunes found Mr. Kelly substituting his gentle acoustic guitar work for nimbly brilliant, and subtly finger-picked electric guitar phrases, while the accompanying band members effortlessly shaped the songs with blues, jazz, and rock styling, breathing new life into them.

"Heart's Arms" haunted the stage with an accordion's wheeze, while "You Are Lost" lamented on a love's uncertainty. The pairing of these two lonesome ballads from Beware carved out a dark valley, with which the band would ascend from with the bounce of  "The Sounds Are Always Begging." It was a delicate foot thumper, leading into the masterful and sweepingly delicate rendition of "Strange Form of Life", that took on a virtuosic minimalism, compared to the more engulfing version found on "The Letting Go".

One of the biggest highlights of the evening for me was when the towering Matt Sweeney, who joined Mr. Oldham for the Superwolf album (which is one of my favorite LPs by Oldham), dwarfed all of the players on stage, and joined the band for the brilliant "Only Someone Running" and "With Cornstalks Or Among Them". Having missed the Superwolf tour stop in NYC back in 2004, literally by one night, Mr. Sweeney's appearance at Town Hall revisiting the Superwolf collaboration was enthralling. And Mr. Sweeny and Mr. Kelly's guitar worked impressively well together, sparking the collective to spread out sonically.

Having been an admirer of Mr. Oldham's work, the night totally delivered something new, which always seems to be the case. Each time I have seen the man play over the years, each performance includes a repertoire which captivates by stylistically taking on fresh variations. The show last week at Town Hall was no exception. 

Last spring I was lucky enough to attend one of the Bonnie Prince Billy & The Cairo Gang shows that was just the two men performing in a small Brooklyn basement, to about 200 people, without any microphones or amplifiers. It was an intimate and beautiful performance that seemed like a truly timeless experience. You can read my review of that performance here.

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