Live Music + Gig Reviews

Bonnie Prince Billy + Pram @ London Shepherd’s Bush Empire

16 October 2003


As a late addition to Domino Records’ 10-year celebratory series of gigs, Will Oldham, AKA Bonnie Prince Billy, stepped down to Shepherd’s Bush, from last night’s sold-out Cecil Sharpe House show in Camden. To further the Domino effect, this evening’s programme is augmented by label-chums, Pram.

With the temporary absence of singer and lyricist Rosie Cuckston due to maternity leave, Birmingham-based Pram’s set consists of nine instrumentals. Nonetheless, Pram still deliver their soundtracks to half-forgotten childhood experience and fractured dreams with nonchalant effusiveness. There are times when the exotic swirl of the music appears to be pulsing symbiotically with the selection of bizarre movie out-takes that pepper the light-show, like a weekend’s cult film festival on fast-forward.

Pram delight in celebrating the freakish and the peculiar as everyday, and the effect of their set is akin to watching a David Lynch film without the feeling of imminent disquiet. Current BT Directory Enquiries ad music, Track Of The Cat stands out, as does the conjuring rhythms of Cinnibar. Such is the wide palette of references that Pram draw from, that the delicate atmospherics of Peepshow echo Joe Zawinul‘s work with In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis, effortlessly incorporated into Pram’s own white-witch brew.

It’s not too long to wait until the Bonnie Prince himself appears. Will Oldham, amongst a multitude of others, is one of those artists currently accused of being the world’s greatest living songwriter, and the hushed reverence that greets his every song is eerie proof that many here believe it.

However, there’s more to Oldham than simple songsmithery. Will Oldham trained as an actor, and was seen as something of a child prodigy before embarking on a rich recording career under many aliases. There is as much in what BPB doesn’t do, in the silences that inhabit his songs, that suggests one knowledgeable in the art of knowing when to speak, when to move, and when to just feed off the ambience; an actorly gift. Many of the uncrowned Prince’s songs contain spaces that articulate as much as lesser artist’s full-blown productions, and one that goes beyond mere lo-fi gesturing.

It’s an effect heightened by BPB appearing armed only with his new-found zither and guitarist Matt Sweeney in toe. That is, if you can discount Oldham’s Renaissance beard and declining hairline, as identifiable as trademarks as black togs were to Johnny Cash.

Consistent themes of death, depression, infidelity, and redemption through sex might not make subtle background music to tea with your grandmother, but Oldham nettle-grasps them all with the gusto of one to whom abyss-gazing is a muse. It may also explain the occasional mistrustful (and yes, slightly mad) stare that Oldham gives the awe-struck crowd.

But as the man himself assures us in I See A Darkness, it isn’t all he sees. A man that addresses a lover, “With my finger in your behind,” is a man comfortable with mirthful, brittle, misanthropy. And suitably, the Bonnie one garners a few laddish cheers when during A King Of Night he wistfully recalls, “She’s a fine looking lady, and she likes to go down on me.” Thoughtfully, he reassures those laydeez that have braved the Empire “… And I like to go down on her too.”

Now how about that for a vision of gender-harmony?


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