[CLICK HERE to read Day 1 – Live @ Wolf Haven]
BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY
Rainy Day Records
When we pulled into downtown Olympia the streets were busier than usual. As we searched for parking, it was clear that there was a pride festival starting up. When I lived in town, Rainy Day Records was up the hill on the West Side, but has since relocated to the opposite side of town, taking over the space of an old thrift store by the Capitol Theater. It is also now about a block away from Sylvester Park, which is the heart of the annual Procession of the Species parade that marches through downtown Oly and a no-brainer location for something like a pride festival. I wasn’t sure if the crowd would add to the attendance for the in-store or take away from it.
This time, all three members of our tiny family were able to come out to the show: Kim (my baby’s mama), Ronin (our 9 month old), and myself. We had planned to get there a little earlier than we did, but having a small child can easily dictate your schedule for you. Will Oldham (aka: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) made his appearance on the Evergreen State College radio station, KAOS, earlier in the day, but by the time we got close enough to get reception, we were only able to catch the very tail end of the broadcast. Now we were arriving at Rainy Day with, what I would guess was only about 20-minutes or so to spare before the show began.
Outside of the shop, there was a small flyer which featured an image from Bonnie‘s Beware album cover advertising the event. Other than that, there didn’t seem to be much fanfare and the shop was anything but packed, as I headed to the back to look through the used record shelves. Stepping past a miniature stage setup, I recognized the guitar case from the day/show before. It was a casual scene and it wasn’t long before I turned around to see the songwriter himself standing by his belongings. He was dressed in flip flops with white linen pants and a matching short sleeve button up. “Hey, Kim. There’s Will Oldham behind you.” She turned around and he immediately said hello and started talking to us. I asked him about the Wolf Haven performance that I had just seen and he told us that the sanctuary had allowed him to feed dead rats to the wolves. When we talked about the actual tour, however, he seemed a bit disappointed. His original intention was to be able to hit up more spots and cover more of the state, including stops in Aberdeen and Port Townsend. Apparently, the record store in Port Townsend that he was going to perform at was in the middle of some renovation work and, while the original list that he saw included Aberdeen, that stop was missing once the final list was given to him. For whatever reason, he would now only be traveling around a total of around 100 miles in 5 days. A Bellingham date was just added to the mix, but it was clear that he had still hoped that it would have been possible for him to play at least a couple of more shows in at least a couple of more cities.
People began to filter in, so Kim suggested that we just take a seat up front before it got too crazy. There was an open carpeted floor which was framed by wooden records shelves on either side and one mom was positioned in front of the stage with her son, which prompted us to make a similar move. A music stand was set up with what I assumed was a setlist. There was a mic stand this time too and his acoustic/electric was plugged in. Unlike the Wolf Haven show, today there would be amplification. Out of the 3 shows that I would eventually see on this mini-tour, this one would also feature the most banter with the audience. Someone from the Rainy Day staff offered Oldham a couple of refreshment options and he took them up on some water and a bowl of cherries. Promptly at 4pm the set would begin. By now there seemed to be a decent amount of people filling the small store, with plenty of folks seated behind and around us, with others standing up towards the back by the check out counter. It was difficult to see anything beyond that, even the entrance. We were corralled in by walls made of record shelves and I was seated somewhat uncomfortably and cross-legged with one of them up against my back.
Like the previous show, the scene was surprisingly laid back with Oldham intermittently taking requests and speaking with the crowd. His set was loose and he was flexible with his material, running through tracks that spanned every era of his prolific 20 year musical career. The only time that I had ever been able to catch him prior to this was during his March 2009 show at the Moore Theatre, which had him performing with a full band in the sold out historic building. This was obviously quite different. In fact, this tour would mark the first time in a while that the songwriter would be doing a solo performance and his delivery reflected as much. There was a stumble here and there and in one or two instances he’d attempt a song that he wasn’t quite sure that he’d be able to pull off, but that’s to be expected for someone with such an overwhelmingly vast catalog who is so openly willing to revisit so much of it. If a track didn’t go as smooth as he liked, he’d simply attack it again the next day at one of the radio or in-store appearances. He still sounded amazing and his warm attitude was both an asset and in contrast to his remarkable delivery. One moment it was as if we were just hanging out in someone’s living room and then, once the music started, he would turn into some super talented mesmerizing oracle, heightening that honored feeling of privilege to even be in attendance. With little to no separation from the crowd and a welcome exchange of conversation between the artist and his fanbase, this was especially intimate, even for a typical in-store appearance.
But when I say that performing solo was reflected in his delivery, what I’m really referring to is his tendency to be consistently inconsistent by presenting different versions of his material throughout and my assumption that playing alone must allow him the benefit to contort them with these variations at will more easily. His latest Drag City release, Now Here’s My Plan, is a 6-song EP that features re-imaginings of some of his older songs and it makes one wonder about how many possible ways he could manage to cover his own work by turning out very different, but equally impressive versions. It also raises the question about if you might be hearing an on-the-spot rendition of a song that he may never play the exact same way again.
Oldham shared his cherries, by tossing them out to whomever responded with interest in having one, and he even shared his platform. Part of the way into the set, he stated that he liked Steve Albini’s similar approach during Shellac concerts and that he was open to answering any questions that audience members might have. Someone asked him a nearly rhetorical question about how he plays so great, or how he writes such amazing songs, about how he has such a great style or… I don’t know, something that was more of a compliment and an opportunity taken to speak with the man than anything that would garner any legitimate answer. Oldham‘s reply was that, if he could do things any other way, then he would. He was matter of fact in his response and, while there were the expected groans of a crowd trying to encourage positivity from someone that they admired and felt was being too self-deprecating, it was clear that he both meant those words and had very little emotional attachment to them at the same time. Someone else simply asked if he could play a song off of Lie Down in the Light, which he did, and it reminded him about some comics that he had brought to give away. Apparently, his mother had drawn them and she was also the one who created the Lie Down in the Light album cover. Unfortunately, he had forgotten the comics in the car. Even more unfortunately, I forgot to get one from him after the show.
Early into the set, he mentioned how he had visited the local Olympia music store Music 6000, to pick up a tuner or something along those lines, but he kept getting the stores name wrong, referring to it as either Music 4000 or 3000, etc. Continuing with the Lie Down in the Light theme, he went into the track “Easy Does It,” but immediately encountered a tuning problem. After singing “If there’s only one thing I can do. Well…” he stopped abruptly and said “…it’s not tuning a guitar, obviously.” He then continued to joke as he attempted to adjust the issue: “Music 3000, geez! Everything with 3000 on the end sucks. Andre 3000, Mystery Science Theater 3000, it all sucks. And the year 3000 will suck, because we’ll all be dead. And poor Mother Earth won’t even be here, I bet. She’ll have imploded in a joyous fire of some sort.”
It was around this time that I remembered that my Nikon D7000 didn’t suck and that it actually provided me with the ability to record video now. I had been photographing the set while seated on the floor and, with the hefty 70-200mm lens that I was using, I was trying to shoot without blocking the view of the people around me. The angle was fucked and by back hurt like a damn fool. Having never even attempted to utilize the video feature before that point, I tried to prop the camera up by my ankles and point the lens upwards, while hoping that I could get a shot that wasn’t blocking or being blocked by anyone. The results were a bit shaky and my baby even attacked the camera lens at one point, but the following video is still a terrific example of the sound of the show, the set up, and even the interaction with the audience. It also makes a great home movie for us–during the second song, “Nomadic Revery,” you can even hear Ro‘s chirps of excitement and then see Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy react, looking in his direction and playing towards him for a while.
More questions came and someone asked him about R Kelly. Oldham told a story about an appearance that Kelly was supposed to make at a night club in which he only came out to perform briefly and left, leaving high paying ticket holders enraged. Will explained how he could see another side to the situation where there might have been a misunderstanding. He then went on to explain how impressive R. Kelly had been when he saw him perform a couple of tours back and he closed out the show with a Sam Cooke medley, stating that it was “uh-mazing.” It seemed as if a lot of people at Rainy Day weren’t recognizing his affection for Kelly‘s work as sincere and genuine. Years back, when Oldham conducted an interview with the R&B crooner for Interview Magazine, Kelly mentioned an elaborate Christmas party that he threw which featured him performing as Sam Cooke, recreating an entire “show from 1964, when he performed at the Copacabana.” For the party, the host invited about a thousand people into his home and they all had to arrive dressed as if it was the 60s. Kelly further described the event as follows:
It was about a two-and-a-half-hour show that I put together in my living room. Built a stage and catwalk. I had the bulb lights and everything. I had tap dancers. I had a girl with me who sounded just like Billie Holiday. I had a guy who sounded just like Frank Sinatra. And then I did Sam Cooke. We had the marquee on the outside of the door, and I went and got old-school pictures of myself and we put them up like I was born back then and performing back then. We had a sign that said, “One night and one night only.”
…”So I had a full band. I had an orchestra, horn sections, upright bass, all of that stuff, man. Brought in background singers. And I came out with a suit on and everything. It was very classy. People loved it.”
“You know, we recorded the show. We had three cameras recording it because I didn’t want to lose what we’d done. And when people would come over to my house—be it celebrity company or just my friends from around the way—I would play it for them and we would drink and have a ball just looking at it”
I just wanted to know if he ever got the opportunity to watch that footage. He said that he hadn’t.
The one song that I had particularly wanted to hear him play that day was “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” off of his 1994 Palace Brother‘s release, Days in the Wake. When someone in the back of the room requested it, I wasn’t sure if I had heard them correctly and I had a false start trying to get my camera rolling to record it. It chopped about a seconds worth of video off of the recording, but the majority of performance is right here:
Before ending the show, Oldham spoke about how much he used to listen to the Misfits and how he remembers hearing Danzig‘s “Mother” and it being an inspiration to him to try something along those lines. That wasn’t too much of a surprise, considering that his old friend/collaborator, David Pajo released an entire album of acoustic Mifits covers. I expected something similar to come next, but instead he played his own song, “I See Darkness.” This is the first single off of his album of reworked tracks. It’s also a song that was covered by none other than Johnny Cash himself and may be the source of a lot of people discovering the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy material for the first time. Fortunately, for this one, I handed the camera over to Kim, who had a better angle. It’s actually the best recorded video that we got.
After the show, we received plenty of comments about how restrained our kid was during the majority of it. Little did they know that I wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to behave in that environment and I put their concert viewing experience in jeopardy regardless. Will Oldham sat on the stage as a handful of people asked him for autographs or rambled on about this or that. I asked him if we could get a shot with him and Ronin and, without hesitation, he grabbed and squeezed him. It had been a long day and this is when Ro chose to finally crack — he cried right after this photo was taken.
We thanked him for the photo and the show and I told him that I appreciated him playing towns where we had friends that had babies to visit. The next day would see a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in-store a few blocks away from my friend Mark‘s house in Tacoma. His daughter is about Ronin‘s age. It was a nice change of pace from me hitting up dank venues and nightclubs to cover shows by myself all of the time.
Kim hadn’t spent much time in Oly during the daylight hours and I hadn’t been to Old School Pizzeria in years, so we headed over there to eat before driving back up to Seattle. As we were leaving, I saw Will Oldham following his escort/guide over to the Eastside Club tavern. It’s a place that I used to frequent myself and I had a flashback of the first time that I remember them ever hosting a live show in that establishment. It was by Frank Black and the Catholics and I couldn’t believe that someone of that caliber was actually performing only a couple of feet away from me at a bar that I am positive that I would have been at anyway that night. It was a good memory, but between the time of that show and when I finally got in my car and drove the fuck out of that town “for good,” I had accumulated quite a few more miserable, damaging, and all-around terrible ones. I had some pretty goddamn bleak times in that city. It was great to be able to return now, however, with an entirely new life, an entirely new family, and an entirely new viewpoint. Not only were the ghosts all gone, but I was also able to collect an entirely new experience and another great new memory. I used to see a darkness myself, but I didn’t anymore. The weather was beautiful and we’d been listening to terrific music and eating pizza, so it was a solid trip all around. The irony was that it centered around a place called Rainy Day.
Next stop Tacoma.
[Check out the photo gallery]