Review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy show re-tools Mil-town’s top five

Photo by CJ Foeckler/Pabst Theater

Photo by CJ Foeckler/Pabst Theater


Words by Jon Anne Willow

Part surprise, part transcendent musical experience, Will Oldham and his band enthralled a full house Wednesday night at Turner Hall.

Okay, that’s a few thoughts to sort out. First the surprise. It was widespread, the vibe definitely one of expectations exceeded. Often, fans of Oldham/Billy experience him on stage alone, shoe-gazing and quiet, taking requests slyly/shyly as if he forgot to make a set list and clumsily fumbling through songs only half-remembered. It’s quirky, sure, but not an experience any but the most hardcore devotees need to experience more than once or twice. I’ve seen it twice – once in Chicago on a big stage where it was kind of a mess and once at the now-fabled Atomic Records in-store where he deftly commanded the “crowd” of 50 and gamely played “Cinematographer” all the way through. Wednesday’s show, however, proffered Oldham at his best, with a talented band that included the amazing vocal and fiddle stylings of Cheyenne Mize and the ample talents of Josh Abrams (contrabass), Emmett Kelly (guitar) and Jim White (drums). Together, the five brought into crystal-clear focus how Oldham’s music can – and should – sound live.

Then there’s the transcendent part. Though not one to revisit his musical past much, last night’s audience was treated to both “Pushkin” and “The Brute Choir” from the bygone days of the Palace Brothers. The rest of the 20-song set (plus four-song encore) focused mostly on songs from Ease Down the Road, The Letting Go and the brand new Beware! (The exclamation point is part of the title.) The three records share a distinct musical thread that relies on vocal harmonies, shimmering percussion and deft string arrangements. The band took that thread and wove it into a gorgeous tapestry of sound and shared experience, and the audience was wrapped in its spell. Except, perhaps, the girl behind me. Obviously an infiltrator from the John Birch Society, she remarked of the lead singer for Brooklyn-based openers Begushkin: “I can’t even look at that guy, he looks so fucking gay.” Previously I’d been a little bored by their set and the white makeup painted dramatically all the way around lead singer Dan Smith’s eyes, but her remark made me appreciate them in a new way. Begushkin does exemplify Oldham’s personal dedication to music that pushes boundaries, and the opener’s synthesis of prog, alt-country and gypsy styles fit the bill to a tee.

But even beyond the musicianship of the players was the vibe of the show itself. Oldham jigged on stage, stood on one leg often and cheerfully engaged and insulted the crowd, asking a girl who had collected every cookie fortune and greeting card she’d ever received if she graduated from college. “Hope that works out for you!” he quipped, giving the tiniest peek into the cynicism that keeps his bearded fans loyal and the casual listener slightly off-balance. Standing at the front among strangers, the faces around me were split with wide grins and the eyes turned up to the stage shone. Afterward there was a collective urge to glow with others. I glowed in the ladies room with a total stranger, with the friend I came with and with some friends I ran into. Outside, others still were glowing in the good vibration still resonating from the empty stage from which Bonnie “Prince” Billy and his band had just earned a slot on Milwaukee’s 2009 Top Five shows list. And that’s more than a prediction: I can virtually guarantee it.

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