Bonnie “Prince” Billy with Bitchin’ Bajas at the Englert Theatre, Iowa City

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (December 15, 2013) — Will Oldham on stage at the Englert Theatre as Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sunday night with Bitchin’ Bajas opening. Concert Review by Nathan Emerson, photos by Paul Adams.

Bitchin’ Bajas Review

by Nathan Emerson

Bitchin Bajas opened up for Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and a couple years ago I would have written them off. In fact, it was about 3 years ago in Iowa City, after a Giants show (amazing post-rock band), that I was invited to my first noise party that flirted with this same style of music. At the time I thought it was a bunch of artsy hacks trying too hard to be weird –- and maybe those guys were . . . BUT Bitchin Bajas put on a solid performance. Their performance brought me full circle from listening to this music in a basement I thought I would get tuberculosis from, to listening in the beautiful Englert Theatre. 

The music they make is considered “Drone” music, often with pulsing synths or tonal clusters of some sort. This was a perfect environment to take it in (other than at home) as the acoustics here were phenomenal. I love theatre shows as the volume can be tamed and rich.

There were two gentlemen playing with the knobs of synth boards and another cat sitting with his eyes closed for a majority of the show until he would pick up a flute or his sax and stand. Some swells were almost unsettling yet relaxing at the same time. There was an ambiance as time felt suspended and then orchestrated chaos ensued and was brought to an end.

A Native American feel and Middle Eastern vibe was more present when one player picked up bells and a shaker that I thought was a beer can at first. Just when I thought a mantra was about to start, a guitar was picked up and we went straight into a Syd Barret Pink Floyd phaser laced delay and reverb jam — calming down and then with a fading drone ending the show.

Bitchin’ Bajas Photos

All images copyright Paul Adams

Bonnie “Prince” Billy Review

by Nathan Emerson

So the mood was set, the stage was emptied, and we all didn’t know if it was a solo show or if a band would play with Bonnie. There was so much mystery in the room, like his music and the stage character Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Will Oldham stepped onstage and waved. With the first strum of the guitar, he went into character. His powerful voice filled the air, the volume was perfect into the single mic for the acoustics of The Englert.

He started out with a few faster songs, to be honest, I didn’t take notes at this show because I didn’t want to miss it! He would lift his leg up or put it behind his knee like a swan. Crouching his neck down and forward while singing, suddenly, he would wince lifting the soup strainer mustache that bounced on his face. One minute, he was standing still and then the next, he was changing standing positions such as on his tiptoes, feet pointed towards each other or away. The most awkward position was when he stood on the sides of his feet, this is the freak folk we expected. And you could tell he was looking into the audience, not for approval, but for reaction.

He did talk to the audience. The first time I believe he murmured “Don’t talk to the audience, they expect that,” which got a laugh from the crowd. He then mentioned he lived in Iowa City for a short period of time, and not being very social along with having nothing to do there (which also got a laugh) he explained how he finally figured out how to write and express himself on a record the way he wanted. That record and song he described was from the days when he went by many monikers using the name “Palace” in them, but this particular album holds no name of artist. He sang the title track “Arise Therefore”, and of course it sounded nothing like the original album. 

Oldham joked about Mitch McConnell, his Kentucky representative and Senate Minority Leader, ”I support his work with the Burmese — and nothing else.” In fact he explained a few songs through political context, like his newer song “Bad Man”. “Nobody lobbies to keep people away from you.” He also stated that he assumes sometimes everybody feels like the lyrics in that song or at least most of the people in the crowd have felt this way. He knows a majority of his audience.

He made another joke about things you shouldn’t say to get elected. Bonnie stepped away from the mic . . . and possibly character to use only his natural vocal projection and explained his love for Peter O’Tool, having recorded “Lawrence of Arabia” on VHS, and then sang a song with lyrics from the movie.

Oldham explained “Ohio Riverboat Song” was adapted from a Scottish song which he recorded with his friends from the band Slint. To this the crowd cheered and he explained the band is back touring. Another humorous interaction happened while explaining the song “Weepin Willow,” claiming it was intended to market “Canadian Royal Crown Whiskey.” The crowd corrected him, and he laughed explaining in Kentucky they don’t have to know that, and maybe that’s why the song didn’t get picked up, as he lifted a glass flask of Jim Beam bourbon to his lips.

In the end, many intimate moments unfolded opposed to the eccentric uneasiness of the dark lyrics and character Will Oldham has embraced. There were many songs I didn’t expect to hear. Two being “Cinematographer” and “Quail and Dumplings,” both of which I could have traded for one from the catalog of my favorites he didn’t play. Remembering our conversation and interview, he said he doesn’t want people to have expectations. However, he did take requests for one moment.

By far the greatest moment for me was when he told stories about hearing George Jones sing. At that moment Will was pouring his heart out about The Possum and excitedly explaining what many felt hearing him sing at The Englert. With that, he sang a George Jones song, “Little Boy Blue.” 

Bonnie “Prince” Billy Photos

All images copyright Paul Adams

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