Real Live Action

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

March 25 @ Vogue Theatre

Review By Alex Smith

Will Oldham is notoriously prickly when it comes to the media, so I wasn’t particularly surprised to see his back petulantly turned to the photographic corps during their brief allotment of shooting time. As it turned out, the evening was characterized by this obstinacy—but it was strangely charming.

Openers Pillars & Tongues, though they made an interesting din of droning, wailing and free-form percussion, can only be said to have benefitted from the Vogue’s theatre-seated, captive audience—if nothing else, their subtleties would have been drowned out by chatter in a bar setting.

When Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and band took the stage, it was easy to spot a certain pained awareness of their recent prominence in Oldham’s manner. And why not? Having recently been featured in The New Yorker, in addition to other uncharacteristically high-profile press coverage, he cuts a somewhat different figure than the man whose last Vancouver appearance was so joyfully informal at a church hall in Kitsilano. Well-known songs from his monumental back catalogue were mostly eschewed in favour of more obscure material: although he played at least one track from almost every record he has released, numbers like “I See a Darkness,” famously covered by Johnny Cash, were conspicuously absent. The show also had a high proportion of material from his latest release, Beware, which, frankly, is not his best work.

Still, in a career which now spans 15-plus years, Oldham has earned the right to his eccentricities. Palace-era gems like “The Brute Choir” and “There There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You” combined with a number of reworked Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy tunes (the solemn dirge of “Nomadic Reverie” became a rollicking country tune) to create a set which highlighted the quality and magnitude of Oldham’s oeuvre without relying on predictable crowd favourites. In any case, all was forgiven with his brilliant cover of R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” and he left the stage with a sudden flourish of Southern charm, a final unexpected moment in an evening that was both disconcerting and oddly satisfying.