BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY
It’s hard to deny that there aren’t many, if any, folks out there who are more prolific than Louisville‘s Will Oldham. Perhaps more commonly known by his current stage name, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Oldham released his first full-length LP under the moniker of Palace Brothers through legendary Chicago-based indie label, Drag City, nearly two decades ago. Within 2 years, he released 2 LPs, a handful of 7-inches and began recording as Palace, Palace Songs, and Palace Music; names under which he would eventually release another 2 studio albums; EPs; a double-LP composed of B-sides, outtakes, demos, etc.; at least another half-dozen 7-inches, and more. In 1997, Will Oldham released, Joya, his fifth full-length, but the first released under his own name. The songwriter adopted his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy pseudonym for the 1998 follow up, I See A Darkness, of which Johnny Cash later covered the title track. For the most part, Oldham has continued on with the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy title through today. From the decade that stretched from 2001 until last year, the songwriter has released at least one full-length every single year, whether by himself or through collaborative projects like Superwolf, with musician/producer Matt Sweeny (Chavez, Zwan, etc); The Brave and The Bold, with Tortoise; and The Cairo Gang, with Emmet Kelly. Even more tremendous than his constant output is the fact that the work that he creates never seems rushed and is consistently great, typically containing a genuinely timeless quality.
Prior even to his first Palace Brothers release, Will Oldham had already begun making noise through other mediums. Originally focused on acting, he scored what was already his second movie role at the age of 17, appearing in the critically acclaimed John Sayles film, Matewan, alongside James Earl Jones and Mary McDonnell. At 19, he played the father of “Baby Jessica” McClure (who made news by falling into a well) in the TV movie Everybody’s Baby with seasoned co-stars, Patty Duke and Beau Bridges. It wasn’t long before he was disillusioned with Hollywood and, once he really turned his focus towards making music, it continued to hold his focus. He wasn’t completely done with acting, however, and went on to take small roles in critically acclaimed, award-winning indie films like Junebug (2005), which earned Amy Adams an Oscar nomination, and Wendy and Lucy (starring Michelle Williams), as well as a leading role in the favorably received Old Joy. In 1999 he even made a minor uncredited appearance in Harmony Korine‘s Dogme 95 project, Julian Donkey-boy—Harmony would later direct Bonnie‘s “No More Workhorse Blues” video and even contribute backing vocals to the album Ease Down The Road. Also providing vocals on Ease Down the Road was David Pajo (Papa M, Tortoise, Zwan), whose pioneering band, Slint, released Spiderland (1991), which was to become credited as thee seminal post-rock album and featured the classic cover image of the band members’ heads poking out of the water–an image photographed by none other than Will Oldham. Beyond his collaborations with Pajo, Will has drawn from the pool of other Drag City talent, collaborating with past Monster Fresh interviewees like David Berman (Silver Jews) and Baby Dee, who he’s done production work for. He’s made comedic acting appearances with friend, Zach Galifianakis on both Wonder Showzen and in an alternate, yet equally “official,” video for Kanye West‘s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” If the Kanye affiliation seems surprising, you may also be interested to find out that Oldham portrays an interrogating cop in the 15th installment of “Trapped in the Closet” by R. Kelly, an artist whose music he has covered before and someone that he even conducted an interview with for Interview magazine. He really does seem to be able to get his hands into anything that he wants to and do it successfully.
It’s been a little less than a year since Billy‘s latest full-length of fresh tunes, Wolfroy Goes to Town, but he’s already followed it up with a 7-inch EP of B-Sides and a brand new EP that features re-imaginings of some of his older material. As if that wasn’t enough, he also welcomed record store day this year by issuing a Wolfroy signature condom and even put out his own blend of Kona coffee. To top it all off, he is now the subject of a new book which is, essentially, a 382 page interview that allows him to address nearly every possible question about his life and career imaginable. After doing so much, I couldn’t help but wonder about a couple of things. The first was if he would even find the time or interest to come back through and perform in the Seattle area soon, so that I could see him again. The second was what could possibly be next for him. Then, in May, I received and email from Drag City Records that provided a bit of insight into each of these questions.
Here is a copy of what was emailed to us:
WHAT’S THAT (PUGET) SOUND? TIME TO GET FREE BONNY!
Guess who’s coming to the Puget Sound area for a free tour of record stores next month? That’s right, wolf boys and girls – Bonnie Prince Billy! Ear to the radio, with an eye on the record bin as usual, the Free Bonny instore tour is back again making stops at haunts both old and new. June 9 through 13 Pacific Nor’westers will have seven chances to hear the Prince for free when he visits Rainy Day in Olympia, Rocket Records in Tacoma, The Business in Anacortes and Sonic Boom in Seattle. Plus Bonny will return to the airwaves for live in-studio sessions at KEXP in Seattle and KAOS in Olympia.
There’s even a kicker for all you overcast fetish freaks: The whole thing starts off on June 9 with an open invitation to Tenino where the good people at Wolf Haven International have tours open to the public (or at least the first 30 people) every hour starting at 10am so everyone can have the chance to meet Kiawatha, a very sultry little wolf recently adopted by Bonnie Prince Billy, and catch a special (still free though) Bonny concert on the actual grounds of the Wolf Haven! We’ve been told that you too can adopt Kiawatha, or any other wolf for that matter, but you can’t take it (the animal) home with you. It’s symbolic, okay! But if you absolutely need to have a piece of the Louisville slugger, consider ordering a copy of Wolfroy Goes to Town from your friendly mail-order record company. Check out the full schedule below:Free Puget Sound June 9-13, 2012Live with the wolves
6-9-12 Wolf Haven International, Tenino (12pm concert)Live in the store6-10-12 Rainy Day, Olympia 4pm6-11-12 Rocket Records, Tacoma 3pm6-12-12 The Business, Anacortes 7pm
6-13-12 Sonic Boom, Seattle 7pmLive on the radio6-10-12 KAOS 89.3FM Olympia 2pm
6-13-12 KEXP 90.3FM Seattle 3pm
Not only was he returning to perform in the area, but he was actually coming through some of my regular stomping grounds, both past and present. I lived in Olympia, Wa for close to 6 years and, in that time, I would frequent Rainy Day Records on an almost daily basis, while KAOS is the radio station at the Evergreen State College, which I attended. Sonic Boom is a record store that I’ve scored a ton of great stuff at in Seattle, where I live now, and KEXP is a locally-based, yet nationally recognized, independent radio station out of UW. I still wasn’t entirely sure where Tenino was in relation to Olympia, but the whole wolf thing just sounded too crazy to miss, even though I was fairly positive that I was going to.
I first received the press release about the mini-tour about 3 weeks prior to the first listed date, but aside from a follow up email with identical information that arrived 4 days later, that was pretty much the last that I would hear about the shows until right before they actually took place. In fact, nothing even hit the Drag City website until June 8th and, as that post stated, the shows would be “..beginning Saturday, June 9. THIS SATURDAY, m’GOSH, tomorrow.” Some folks even informed me that our suggested events page and/or simple Facebook posts about the tour provided the only information that they’d received about the tour at all.
On the morning of the 9th, I received a text from my friend Justin (aka Mac Dawg) in Olympia stating that he was taking his kids out to Wolf Haven, so I called him back. He figured that the Rainy Day show might be packed the following day and, since I now had someone else that I knew who was going, and since my 9 month old and Justin‘s 1 year old had still never met, I made the last minute decision to trek up there myself. Right after my baby’s mama went to work that morning, I bolted up to Oly. I made it there in about an hour’s time and, after we all transferred into Justin‘s vehicle, we headed out to Tenino.
It didn’t take long before we pulled into a parking lot in front of the wolf sanctuary. While I knew that there was no plausible way that the ridiculous scenario that I had been envisioning in my head could be anywhere near accurate, I had never been to Wolf Haven before, let alone a concert at a wolf sanctuary, so I had no idea of how things would be organized or arranged. I kept imagining Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy nonchalantly playing guitar in front of a cold stony crag while wild, stoic, and tornado-eyed wolves surrounded and lurked behind him both powerfully and majestically. They would be incredibly intimidating and protective, yet a far cry from menacing if your intentions were pure. Maybe he would be wearing an amulet. Maybe we would see the picked-clean ribcage on the carcass of a white stag and a ghostly silhouette of the noble fallen beast would materialize in the clouds in the distance. Obviously, this performance was scheduled to take place in reality and not in an episode of Game of Thrones, so probably not. In fact, I would never even see a single wolf at all that day. What I did see, however, was a simple wooden stage facing two rows of wooden bleachers. We had parked by a building and there was clearly an entrance into the actual sanctuary area itself, but we didn’t need to enter through those gates or go very far at all. The stage and bleacher set up was simply right out front next to the parking lot. It wasn’t a difficult event to get into; anyone that stumbled up would have been welcome.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy stood on the wooden stage with a darkwood acoustic guitar, no mic, and no amplification. He wore a light-weight navy blue jacket with fading slate-grey slacks and his fingernails were painted baby blue to match his plastic thumb pick. A squashed greenish-teal snap-back cap sunk onto his head and a well-traveled, off-white guitar case sat on the stage to his side. There were two wooden bar stools. One operated as a table for his bottled water and notes, not unlike a standup comedian. I assume that the other stool was for him to sit down on–something that he never did. We took up a spot in the grass to the side of the bleachers and it was nice to see other kids around and know that I wasn’t going to be dragging my son into a chaotic crowd just so that I could watch a free concert. The seats weren’t even full, but, with the relaxed environment, deep sky backdrop, and lush conifers, the grass was nice. I knew that there was only very minor publicity behind the tour and I was really pleased to see such an intimate environment, but I can’t deny that I was surprised that there wasn’t more of a turnout. When he was on tour promoting the Beware album in Seattle three years ago, he sold out the 2,436 capacity Moore Theatre. It has always fascinated me how the free shows never seem to bring in the crowds like the expensive ones do. We’ve done a good amount of giveaways over the years–that Moore show included–and people just don’t trust that there could be something amazing provided to them without cost. For those that do take advantage of it, though, it only adds to the feeling that you’re a part of something exclusive, something special.
Oldham was very relaxed in his delivery, talking with the audience, accepting requests, and playing tracks that spanned from old Palace Brothers classics like “I Am A Cinematographer” to newer gems like “Quail and Dumplings” off of Wolfroy Goes to Town. The day was nice; wind blew gently through the trees, Bonnie crooned, couples sat in the wooden stands, and tiny humans crawled around in the grass. By far the most memorable moment came at the end of the show when one of the sanctuary employees shared the stage and instructed us all to howl on her command, which we did. As she lowered her hands, conducting us to put the brakes on our animalistic wails, we could hear all of the wolves responding from within the sanctuary with a collective howl of their own.
After the show, a group of fans greeted Bonnie as he stepped down stage left. He appeared to be speaking with anyone that was interested and graciously posing for photographs. Meanwhile, I was speaking with people from Olympia that I hadn’t seen in a while. I had the notion to try and get a photo with Will and my son, Ronin, because I figured that my lady, who was unable to attend, would get a kick out of it when she got home. However, once I finally made the decision to head over in his direction, the crowd had dissipated and everyone, Oldham included, were getting themselves ready to go on a guided tour of the sanctuary grounds. Justin and I decided to head back to his place to let the kids relax, while we simply kicked it lounge style, since it happens so rarely. I’d have to make the trip back out to the area the next day anyway, to see another Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy performance at the Rainy Day Records in-store (read that review here). It would be Ro‘s second concert in 2 days and his second concert ever–since heroically crawling out of a vagina. And for a first show, we could have done a lot worse.
Check out more photographs from the Wolf Haven International performance below…
[click images to enlarge]