review: Bonnie Prince Billy, Hackney Empire, 25th January 2012

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words: Jonathan Greer photos: Sarah Dorman

The four musicians that make up Bonnie “Prince” Billy's band tonight make the most unassuming entrance, shuffling on stage and effectively rigging their own equipment in front of us. Maybe it is a deliberately amateur move to distract us from just how special their performance is going to be, or maybe it's just something that they do, and the fact they are about to play in front of a sell out crowd at this ornate old music hall doesn't bother them at all.
Over the years, Will Oldham has performed his music under many aliases, and although tonight is billed as simply a Bonnie “Prince” Billy show, his fully acoustic band comprise two regular members of the Cairo Gang. Emmett Kelly is there with his excellent guitar skills, as is Angel Olsen who acts as a co-vocalist with Will himself and nearly steals the show a few times.

They play material from all stages of Oldham's career over the course of their lengthy set, although the song choices do tend to favour material from their most recent albums. The soaring vocals on “Beware Your Only Friend” set the tone and show from early on how well these musicians gel together. Will is on fine form throughout, full of humorous stories and anecdotes about the horrors of the ageing process, the forecasted Mayan apocalypse and the posturing of RnB star Jason Derulo. He is also openly delighted at discovering the taste of whisky in his moustache.

There are many, many highlights, such as the old Palace Brothers tune “Pushkin”, a lovely version of “Master and Everyone” and the intricate duet between Will and Angel, “You Want That Picture”. Arguably his best known song “I See A Darkness” is given an uptempo treatment and he admits that due to the ad-libbed approach to the set-list he doesn't get around to anything from the new album “Wolfroy Goes to Town” until 40 minutes into the set. That approach also means that the extraordinary “So Everyone”, which would be fit to close anyone's show, is played mid-set and brings forth such rapturous applause that it's actually hard to follow.

They're undaunted by this and they peak again with the intense American gothic “The Seedling”, only to contrast sharply with a very moving version of “Three Questions” which closes the main set. When they return for “Merciless and Great” it becomes clear what a skilful guitarist Emmett Kelly is, but also how impressive Oldham's voice is these days. It has come far from the fragile warble of his early days and is now a much more powerful and controlled style of singing, and in combination with Angel Olsen, their voices totally fill this hall.

He finally brings the show to an end by announcing that he has a train to catch to Scotland as it is Burns Night, and then the band launch into Richard Farina's old folk song “Pack Up Your Troubles”, which is about as Scottish as Greenwich Village, but it's a great carefree tune to go out on.

So well over 90 minutes after shuffling onto the stage the band are gone; Will Oldham the last one to be seen, shuffling towards the back of the stage, guitar still around his neck, coiling his own cables. A remarkable songwriter and showman as well; tonight we were privileged to be here. This was one of those shows that just stays with you long after it is over.

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