Bonnie Prince Billy, Matisse Up Late, March 2
Bonnie Prince Billy
was always going to test GoMA’s
resources for live music. Not when it comes to the sonics – the gallery for the most part seems to have those concerns well and truly covered these days – but simply in terms the number of people destined to turn up. Twenty lousy bucks to see one of America’s most acclaimed modern songwriters is, for many, a deal too good to turn down.
And so it proved. Web sales were exhausted well before tonight’s show and when a friend went down to the gallery at 5:30pm for an at-the-door ticket, he waited in line 40 minutes before walking away disappointed. Handling such demand is something GoMA will no doubt get better at as the Up Late concerts continue to grow in popularity and profile, but you can’t help but feel they fumbled the ticketing slightly on this one.
Still, given the stature of the performer tonight , it’s totally understandable. Bonnie Prince Billy – or Will Oldham, as he’s known to his local JP – is an artist of considerable repute, with his shuffling music and idiosyncratic lyricism being almost impossible to ape. Since adopting the Bonnie Prince moniker in the late 90s, Oldham has built a worldwide following that hangs on his every release – which luckily for them tend to come every year or so.
So, all that means GoMA is packed to the gunnels tonight. I slip to the back of the crowd and make sense of my surroundings, or at least the people around me. There’s some guy talking nonsense about French wine, a grumpy girl shopping on her phone for a food server and a smelly person who I can’t quite identify. Watching music in GoMA’s atrium is a little like watching a movie at home in your living room with the lights on: sans darkness to focus the mind, there’s the potential to get distracted. And that’s what happens to a lot of people who over involve themselves in discussing their week just past, or perhaps the weekend coming.
But to Oldham’s infinite credit he shuts most of them up with his shambling, country and blues-infused whispers. Standing onstage tonight he’s an intimidating sight, mascara matched to the purple light aimed at his face to evoke a ringmaster who’s lost his circus. His co-conspirators are much the same, singer Angel Olsen staring coldly into the crowd like Wednesday Addams and guitarist Emmett Kelly acting almost like a second frontman – particularly on set opener ‘With Cornstalks Or Among Them’ – but for the sheer amount of concentration he puts into his playing.
The group nail home the brooding atmosphere with a muscular take on ‘That’s What Our Love Is’. Second song up it's an awesome moment as the dark and lurid seven-minute cut is spun out into oblivion. It establishes something of a silent mandate with the audience, and a relative hush remains over the venue as Oldham and his cohorts slowly and purposefully work through some stellar versions of ‘Go Folks, Go’, ‘Wolf Among Wolves’ and a fantastic cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes’.
It’s not until the last songs of the set that the audience – now a few drinks into the evening – start to hoot and holler a little, with Oldham too finally choosing to break his silence and communicate with the fans. He tongue-ties himself through some thank-yous before launching into the steam-driven hoedown of ‘Easy Does It’, the last cut of the night.
It wraps a lengthy set of undeniable quality. You’d be hard pressed to find a more engaging performer than Oldham, and while tonight’s show arguably could have benefitted from a more varied set list, the masses of satisfied fans filing out of the gallery are a testament to the power and allure of Bonnie Prince Billy.