Bonnie Prince Billy
Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 4/8/2010
published: 29 /
Chris O' Toole wonders if Bonnie Prince Billy's long period of creative energy has finally come to an end after watching a sluggish show with the Cairo Gang at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London
Even with his illustrious career stretching away into the distant past the last five years have been a remarkably productive period for Bonnie Prince Billy. Hooking up with guitarist Emmett Kelly - here billed as the Cairo Gang – the cult icon has produced a run of three albums which have begun to redefine his oeuvre. Beginning with 'The Letting Go' in 2006, through to 'Beware' last year and the most recent 'The Wonder Show of the World', Bonnie Prince Billy has redefined himself as erotic Americana troubadour and moved away from his stock persona of lovelorn country balladeer.
It is this body of work Will Oldham and his band draw from tonight. Taking the stage the lead duo of Oldham and Kelly are joined by singer Lavinia Blackwall and drummer Alex Neilson, as well as bassist Shahzad Ismaily. Both Neilson and Blackwall had earlier performed as Trembling Bells and slot easily into the wistful, yet raunchy mood of the evening.
Indeed any performance would have been rapturously received just then, with the venue electing to leave the crowd in awkward silence during the intermission between support act and headliner.
Nonetheless Oldham is greeted as a returning hero when he saunters out.
In what turns out to be a resolutely forward looking performance, the ensemble open with 'Where’s The Show/Lord Let Me Be a Man', by Willie Nelson before moving on to 'Troublesome Houses' and 'With Cornstalks Or Among Them' from 'The Wonder Show…'. All are received with quiet admiration from the capacity crowd. Oldham – centre stage, but more bandleader than frontman – plaintively sings, only occasionally reaching for a melodica to embellish the sound.
It is left to Kelly to direct the score, as he dips into styles ranging from Spanish guitar to blues, jazz and folk. The knowing, even intimate relationship, between the pair allows the show to flow along the loosest of lines. The association can also be criticised, however, limiting Oldham to material from the recent past, which can occasionally leave the crowd cold. And, while it is difficult to image an artist as quixotic as Oldham responding directly to such accusations, 'I See a Darkness' is thrown in midway through the set to silence the doubters.
It is, however, only a brief change of tack, before returning to material from 'The Wonder Show of the World'. Closing with 'Kids' – the final track of 'The Wonder Show…' - Oldham returns for a brief encore – including 'Bad News' - before the curtain falls.
Live, then, Bonnie Prince Billy seems to be a touch in his own shadow. While he may have been undergoing a reinvention of late, many are left to wonder what might have been lost. His legacy is such that any new ensemble, such as the Cairo Gang, must inevitably be compared to previous epochs of this illustrious artist’s career. And while on record this has been a fruitful period for Oldham, it doesn’t quite translate to the stage this evening, with a restless crowd filing out wondering what might have been.