Susanna, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s support act, began her set with a beautiful cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’. In her sincere absurdity, she recalled Billy’s version of R. Kelly’s wildly hubristic ‘The Greatest’. But there was nothing of that unpredictable spirit in her equally beautiful cover of Billy’s own ‘Joy and Jubilee’. Instead, Susanna sang with the reverence of the Hackney Empire audience when “the Prince” (her words) made his own entrance.
This reverence is deserved, and apt: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s songs have the grace – and the knotted self-awareness – of prayers. But Will Oldham is an actor as well as a singer, and his Billy now is a performance ironically more in tune with Susanna’s ‘Jailbreak’ than her ‘Joy’. Oldham celebrates puncturing seriousness. Tonight, ‘There Is No God’ proved itself false, proclaiming God is all manner of things, including a mouth giving all-welcoming fellatio. The song is so indiscriminate that, for all we know, even R. Kelly is God. R himself certainly thinks so. In his prolix, meanwhile, in his pleasure taken in contradiction, and in that peculiar beard, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy echoes Walt Whitman when Whitman writes “of these one and all I weave the song of myself.”
Such an echo is surely deliberate. Deliberate too was the way Billy stood: half awkward, half courtly, arms behind his back. Delivered like that, lines like “some things are so good that nothing after will compare” had the conviction of a child at a recital, uncomprehending yet compelled to sing. But there was also a playfulness that often only enhanced the steely self-awareness of his lyrics. His band infectiously supported the reshaping of his past around the spaces and peaks of his present. ‘I See A Darkness’, for instance, was played with a light country swagger that somehow made the darkness even more triumphant. And if there was a raggedness to their sound, its absence of care was a liberating thing.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is still capable of stunning a crowd to silence. When he sang of his hope that “you hold me till the fire that brought us here chars us and takes us home,” the mid-song applause delayed Emmett Kelly’s great guitar part. Capable, then, but careless, like a writer acting his own work, Oldham was also very funny. Between songs, he explained The Big Question: “when a gentleman gets older, can he inspire respect, joy and lust in his partner without becoming laughable?” A voice in the crowd shouted “yes!” “That was a young voice,” Oldham replied, before starting ‘Pushkin’, the chorus of which told him and us says “God is the answer.” And yet ‘Pushkin’ was written at least a decade ago. It’s his young voice. To judge from his gig tonight, the older Oldham might think the answer lies in laughing. He’s all the better for it.
Words by Freddy Syborn
Photos by Jenny Lewis