Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Baffling Babblers

by Peter Blackstock on December 6, 2010

Emmett Kelly & Bonnie "Prince" Billy (photo: Susan Jean Schofield)

If you came to Reynolds on December 4 to see Bonnie “Prince” Billy and knew nothing about the late-announced opening act, the Babblers, you had plenty of company. Even what little was said about the act here on The Threadin an interview with Bonnie brainchild Will Oldham that was also printed in the program handed out at the show—was partially fabricated, which is typical of Oldham’s cagey persona. We had to dig up further info on our own.

The Babblers turned out to be the alter-ego of the Bonnie “Prince” Billy lineup. Dressed in sunglasses and one-piece pajamas with hoods, the six band members ambled onto a mostly dark stage that was adorned by a handful of small table lamps and a vertical trellis of white Christmas lights. One could have easily taken this for some sort of silly dalliance, but in fact, it’s a rather complex conceptual project: The group’s name is a reference to Babble, an obscure, rock-opera-ish album from the late-70s by the late British outsider artist Kevin Coyne and German singer Dagmar Krause. The hour-long set was an in-sequence performance of the entire Babble album, with Oldham and Angel Olsen, as “Angela Babbler,” in the lead vocal roles.

But was it any good? Well, that may depend upon your  tolerance for psychotic art-rock purportedly based on a notorious 1960s mass-murdering couple. (England’s “Moors murders” were similar to this country’s Manson Family murders.) It might have helped if the audience were more informed about the concept; as it was, the performance seemed a little too much like weirdness for weirdness’ sake, and it didn’t help that the source material is of rather inconsistent quality.

Still, there were moving moments: Oldham’s foreboding presence on opener “Are You Deceiving Me?,” Olsen’s emotional delivery of “Lonely Man,” the surprisingly poppy “Sun Shines Down On Me.” By far the most affecting number was the closer, in which the full six-piece lineup chanted, “It doesn’t matter who you are, we know who we are,” over and over, as they gradually stopped playing their instruments, turned off the table lamps one by one, and slowly exited the stage—still singing that simple mantra all the while.

Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy

The strangeness of that beginning made it somewhat jarring to shift back into “normal” mode for the main set, even allowing for the oddball nature of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s music. Mostly, that comes from Oldham’s overtly awkward stage gestures and antics: ill-timed hops and jumps, tugs at his clothing, and perching on one leg, flamingo-style. Beyond the artifice was a very good band and some richly engaging music, voiced mostly in an Americana context and owing much to the legends of that form. No surprise, then, that Oldham turned to the twin pillars of Willie Nelson’s 1971 album Yesterday’s Wine—”December Day” and “It’s Not for Me to Understand”—to bookend the set.

It’s mostly Oldham’s own songs that haunt and intrigue, though. From older numbers dating back to his Palace Music days such as “New Partner” to recent material such as “With Cornstalks or Among Them,” from this year’s The Wonder Show of the World, his beguiling words received exquisite instrumental support from the supporting cast—Emmett Kelly (a.k.a. the Cairo Gang) on guitar, Ben Boye on piano, Danny Kiely on bass, Van Campbell on drums, and the significant new discovery Olsen on harmony vocals.

Just don’t try to follow him too closely, as he warned amid the ambient accompaniment one of the evening’s most moving and telling numbers: “If you listen to me, you are lost.”

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Vitiello December 6, 2010 at 1:42 pm

I have to say I was nuts for the Babblers. Angel Olsen’s vocals particularly blew me away, and recovered the unevenness of the songs, which I just released after a little while. I was agog at how they kept the entirety of the hour-long set from rolling down steep hills on all sides into irony, concept for concept’s sake, or goofy kitsch. Instead they kept it on a peak that made me wish so hard that it was sincere that it actually became sincere for me. Freakishly, enstrangingly so. I wondered, too, who I was, by the intermission.

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Brian Howe December 6, 2010 at 6:31 pm

It sounds as if the Babblers are really one of those love-it-or-hate-it kind of things, huh? We’d love to hear more perspectives here in the comments box from people who’ve attended the shows. Do share!

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Peter Blackstock December 6, 2010 at 6:49 pm

The thing about it for me was, aesthetically I just found that it mostly repelled me — but I couldn’t help but be really intrigued by the notion of what they were trying to do, and I was quite impressed at the time & effort they’d clearly put into it. (That became clearer when I learned more about the original work, after the performance.) In one sense, then, they definitely succeeded on what I presume was one of their goals: To call attention to an artistic endeavor that they feel has gotten largely left behind by the march of time. In this regard I could definitely empathize with their motives, and indeed applaud them.

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Guillermo Parra December 7, 2010 at 2:10 am

The only thing I knew about The Babblers was a brief glance at the interview in the evening program I was given as I walked into Reynolds Theater. I assumed they were a band from Shreveport. But as soon as I saw the body suits I figured out who it was. I enjoyed the contrast between both sets, the ironic or playful drama between Oldham and Angel Olsen. She was amazing. I kept wanting to hear her sing more songs during the second set. The band was outstanding throughout, especially the sound of that grand piano. I loved the body suits & the drama of the 1st set. What a fantastic night.

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pascal December 7, 2010 at 3:19 am

Oldham is indeed doing a great job at calling attention on the sadly underated Kevin Coyne. Check this 2005 article he wrote:
http://kevincoynepage.free.fr/IMAGES/Oldham_Babble.jpg

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Brian Howe December 7, 2010 at 10:02 am

Very enlightening article, thanks!

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KingPhilip December 7, 2010 at 9:25 am

“England’s “Moors murders” were similar to this country’s Manson Family murders”???

Similar in that they both involved murders. Other than that they couldn’t have been more different. Bad, lazy journalism – crap review.

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Brian Howe December 7, 2010 at 10:00 am

The similarity that Peter Blackstock refers to is that both cases revolved around young couples, and both were obsessively covered by international news media–”pop culture murders,” if you will. Of course there were plenty of differences between the cases too. But within this post’s purview, the comparison holds water.

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Peter Blackstock December 7, 2010 at 6:01 pm

KingPhilip (if that IS your real name… :-)

It would not have been practical in the limited scope of this piece to take any sort of extended detour to explain the details of the Moors murders case. Because the majority of Americans probably are not familiar with the Moors murders, I simply wanted to provide a very brief notion that it was a psychological murder case that became widely publicized. In that regard, similar to the Manson case; but, sure, plenty different in the specifics.

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Ken Rumble December 7, 2010 at 10:25 am

I had the advantage of knowing what Oldham was up to a few months before the concert, so I spent some time listening to the original /Babble/ album (which is really pretty great, a deeply moving portrayal of a mind in a cyclone of destruction and struggle and love.) At any rate, I really enjoyed the Babblers performance and was struck by how exact their replication of it was. It was remarkably close to the original. Angel Olson’s vocals were uncannily close to Dagmar Krause’s originals. Really quite amazing.

Also remarkable about the performance is that the mix of the two sets sounded rather different to my ear. When I first walked in (a little late), I was struck by how flat the sound was. Flat not in a bad way but that it sounded like there wasn’t much reverb / echo in the mix; the sound had a small, boxed in quality that is present in the original recording (whether the original album’s sound is deliberate mastering choices or the resources available to record or, most likely, both, I don’t know.)

When “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” and co. took stage the sound (to my ear) was markedly different, more in line with what I was accustomed to hearing on Oldham’s records and modern recording / performance generally.

Point being that along with the jumpsuits and sunglasses, Oldham mixed in (it seems) some pain-staking attention to small details, rendering a performance that blurred so many boundaries about authenticity / sincerity / performance / entertainment that I was left pretty breathless and grateful.

What I love about Oldham generally is how frustratingly and confoundingly he creates music / experience / performances as messy, unwieldy, and enlightening as the daily experience of living a life can be.

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Johnny Babble December 10, 2010 at 11:30 am

The Babblers were great — and so is the album by Coyne and Krause.

“Sweetheart” was an absolute highlight, cabaret-psychedelia!

Babblers almost overshadowed Cairo Gang — but it was a stellar show.

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Anonymous December 13, 2010 at 9:16 pm

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