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.”

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