[CLICK HERE to read Day 2 – Live @ Rainy Day]
BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY
Not unlike our trip to Olympia the day before, we arrived in Tacoma a bit later than we had anticipated. Today the free Bonnie ‘Prince” Billy show would be held at Rocket Records, a shop that I had absolutely no familiarity with at all. I had never even heard of it, but my friend Mark informed me that it was incredibly close to his house. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons that the show should work out so nicely for us, because, with Mark‘s daughter being roughly the same age as my then-9 month old, we could knock the day out family style again–seeing the show and then spending the time before and/or after visiting with friends who had a kid of their own. Plus, if we have an open day where we want to hang out as a unit, then it’s best to get me as far away from my computer as possible. Otherwise, it’s a guarantee that I’ll be trying to work on some level of bullshit relating to this site. Then, of course, the fact that it was another family friendly Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy show and that it was an absolutely free one, no less, are reasons enough to make a drive south for the day. This was almost too perfect. But, when we arrived at Mark‘s home, his wife and kid weren’t even around. He was the only one in sight.
We had taken those photos with my son, Ronin and Will Oldham (aka: Bonnie Billy) the day before and, later that night, I got the idea to make some prints before we headed out, so that I could get him to personalize one for my baby’s room. Of course, we were never able to get around to it, so that just meant that we would have to go get them now. Mark told us about the location of a Bartell Drugs that we could hit up to get my shots developed and we agreed that we would just meet up with him at the in-store afterwards. I understood that Rocket Records was supposed to be close by–walking distance, even– but it was a fairly residential area that we were in and there didn’t seem to be too many people out and about in the world. As we drove towards the drug store, however, there it was. It was a small shop on a corner with the non-specific message of “Live Music @ 3PM” scrawled onto a black sandwich board in chalk out front. The Bartell’s was in view and, while there were definitely a few more stores appearing, the area still possessed the lackadaisical feel of a downtown area in the suburbs that had been left behind in time, at best. What I mean by that is that it still felt like the middle of nowhere for an event like this, like a place that hadn’t been a destination for anything in years. Then again, I live in Seattle where there are at least a few of the larger businesses still holding on in the music retail game and Rocket is probably more representative of what most record shops would be like outside of a larger city. That being said, Tacoma is a larger city in Western Washington, so who knows. It still seemed like a random spot for this show, but I did just see him perform at a Wolf Sanctuary two days prior and it doesn’t get a lot more random than that.
After printing up a few digital photographs on one of those little Kodak picture kiosks, we pulled up and parked in front of Rocket, which was only a couple of blocks away. Ronin needed to eat and, since we quickly realized that we had forgotten to bring a bottle with us, Kim decided to feed him in the car and then walk back to the drugstore to get one, in case he needed to eat during the show. The check-out counter at of the record store was by the entrance to the right, and the belly of the small shop was full of the typical blocks of generic rectangular wooden record bins that one might expect, with CD racks pressed up against the perimeter. In the back, against the same wall as the checkout counter, was a decent-sized alcove, which was clearly set up to operate as the “stage” for any guest performers or open mics that the store might host. This is where I saw Will Oldham, standing off to the side and getting his stuff together. A handful of various posters that were advertising local events and album releases were pinned to the walls, which provided the little area with the ambiance of a makeshift basement apartment in someone’s parents’ house. There was also a small track with about 5 stage lights pointing at the wall of the alcove. Throughout the entire show, the lights rarely found themselves on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s figure at all, unless he was stepping back to do something like retune his guitar between songs. Mostly, the lights just illuminate an orange poster for an old 2006 Thermals album, featuring an image of Jesus in front of toxic smoke, the Earth, and a bunch of old black & white junked automobiles.
As far as people in attendance, the turnout was still pretty slim. Being that this whole thing was going down on a Monday at 3pm at a little record store in Tacoma, I wasn’t sure if it was really going to get much more packed by the end of it anyway. Oldham had been going on promptly at the posted set times every day, allowing people time to show up. It was still 15 minutes early, but that didn’t stop some middle-aged hesher affiliated with the store from jumping the gun with an over-the-top stadium rock intro. The man had long blonde hair and looked like he would be right at home squealing out mid-afternoon guitar solos on the sales floor of an American Music. He grabbed the mic and began with something along lines of, “Thanks for coming out to Rocket Records! We usually don’t do these on Monday, but today we’re making an exception.” He was already amped up during his intro and it was clear that this was “his moment” and he was gonna fucking take a hold of it. Oldham was still off to the side, now casually tuning his guitar. The guy then told us to get ready because “Bonnie” was “gonna rock his ass off” or our “asses off” or “the shit” or “fuck” out of us or “the fucking shit out of our asses” or… something along those lines. Without exaggeration, there were only about 8-10 people in the audience at the most and we all looked at each other with a mix of confusion and amusement. It was clear that he was less than familiar with the Will Oldham catalog and/or he just wasn’t making a connection to the relaxed demeanor of the bearded bald man with the acoustic guitar behind him. It was kind of awesome how he put so much energy into his delivery, but as he walked off, it was ridiculously anti-climactic. I could hear a couple of people mumble that it was still only 2:45 and, after Billy slowly sauntered up to the mic himself, he reiterated those sentiments with something like, “We actually still have about 15 minutes.” He then suggested that we remember everything that was just said in the introduction, because he was pretty sure that guy wasn’t going to come back and do it all over again. Then, in the general direction towards where his voluntary announcer had wandered off, he asked if he had already “blown” his entire “load” with that. This was all said in a very tongue-in-cheek and effectively deadpan manner. From there he immediately drifted over to the checkout counter.
I figured that, with the wait time, it would be a good opportunity to go speak with him again before the show. Oldham had a small stack of CDs that he must have picked out earlier. There was a Roky Erickson album on the top. He slid them over to the guy manning the cash register (the owner?) and it was my impression that he may have been offered them for free for performing. I said hello as I pulled a stack of about 5 or 6 5×7 photographs out of a manilla envelope. I showed him the photos of him and Ronin and asked if he would sign one of them (the “sweeter” of the two and not the “evil” one, by Kim’s request). He seemed to actually get a kick out of them and autographed the photo with the inscription below:
Be bad until you can read
He then signed my copy of the second season of the excessively crude and now-defunct, mock-childrens television program, Wonder Showzen, with the inscription: “Lern! – Will O“. [He made an appearance as a redneck named Pastor Pigmeat on the puppet-free “Horse Apples” (Hee Haw parody) episode of the program.]
I had also made sure to print out a shot that I had taken of him howling at the wolf sanctuary show, because it seemed like something that might be important to him–he had even “adopted” one of the wolves. He thanked me for giving it to him and asked me to write my full name and email address on the back of it, mentioning that, since I was clearly shooting the shows, he was glad that he had been changing his clothes each day. On this day he was wearing mascara and a light blue polo that matched his fingernails.
I had planned for it to be a quick exchange, but he seemed genuinely interested in both the photographs and how I was able to print them up so quickly. I tried to explain how you can take an SD card from your digital camera into a store and, in a fairly straight forward process, use a simple machine to get shots printed within moments after taking one. He noticed that I had extra copies of the photographs with him and Ro, which came from me not liking the original sizes and reprinting them. “You could have those too if you like.” I told him. “Yeah, if you have copies that would be great.” “Since they’re photos with my kid in them too, I didn’t know if you’d want those ones, but yeah… you can totally have them; sure.” He seemed to really be into the one where my baby looked freaked out as he was holding him, while looking like a methed-out gremlin.
We couldn’t have spoken for that long, but the conversation bounced through topics rather quickly. We talked about Drag City and I mentioned how we’ve conducted quite a few interviews for the site with other artists on the label (David Berman, Jennifer Herrema, Neil Hagerty, Ben Chasny, Baby Dee, and Neil Hamburger), nearly all of which he has directly collaborated with, in one way or another. He seemed curious about how the Berman interview went especially. At one point he stated that something that I had said to him forced his mind to shift back into the past, so I sneaked in a subtle mention of his role in the Baby Jessica TV movie that he starred in when he was 19 years old and his look in response made it clear that he was not interested in “going there.”
Mark came into the store around that point and came up to us. I stepped away to allow him to him speak with Will by himself, while I left to go find a spot to watch the show. For someone that is notoriously not a huge fan of doing interviews, Oldham comes across as incredibly open to having impromptu conversations with just about anyone. While I appreciated his graciousness, I had no intention of holding him up from performing, but his attitude was relaxed to the point that he didn’t seem to be concerned about if he went on at all. When he did finally start playing, however, it was clear that nothing could be further from the truth. He definitely put himself into every track that he performed, transcending both the room and the sparse “crowd” within it.
I set up in the center, supporting my camera on some records. One guy was seated on the other side of the record rack and, as he would lean back against it’s fragile wooden support, it created the creaking that you can hear in some of the video. More people were filtering in, distributing themselves into the empty pockets to achieve the best possible view. Even in the small shop, they were scattered about. At one point, I tried to count them all up and the number only came to about 25. I’d say that at it’s peak there wasn’t much more than 30 people in attendance, if that, and I probably recognized the large majority of them. A lot of them I had seen at the show from the day before. I couldn’t tell if I knew the guy to the right of me as a local from when I used to live in Oly or if I knew him from Seattle, but we’ve come in contact before. Standing to my left was a regular customer from the last square job that I had as a barista in Seattle‘s Capitol Hill district. Throughout the entire show he would just look at me in awe, unable to process that we were actually among a very select few who were experiencing this incredibly intimate Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy performance. His wife couldn’t make it, but he said that she’d kill him if he didn’t take a photo with Oldham after the show. Since I knew him, I offered to use my camera to take one and email it out to him.
Like the two previous shows, Bonnie took requests and pulled from songs that spanned his entire career. At the Rainy Day Records show, he engaged with the crowd a lot more and projected a much more upbeat energy towards us; this show was noticeably different. First off, Ronin was the only child that I recall seeing in there and, because he was uncomfortable, Kim took him out for most of the performance anyway. I knew for a fact that a good portion of the audience was made up of people that were either from Seattle or Olympia, so this wasn’t a home town show like with the excited crowd from the day before or the ones that would inevitably be in Seattle and Bellingham. Those who were there made an effort to be there by traveling out and, by recognizing each other from elsewhere, I think that most were aware of that fact. There was also an automatic feeling of bewilderment as to why hardly anyone else made that effort, especially those that already lived in the area. But to reiterate, it was a Monday at 3pm and the last two shows were on sunny summer weekend days. There’s a different vibe in the air on workdays; a spacier, dazed out, Ambien air, way past my afternoon nap type vibe. The lighting in Rocket felt darker, more somber. The songs that he played had a noticeably darker feel to them, both in their general structure and within their delivery. This show was much more isolated campfire than pineapple beach party. Each day it had been different, but there was something special about this show, something both distant and direct. It didn’t feel like there was anybody to “perform” for or “entertain.” It was much more like we were watching a man at home simply playing his guitar, and the sensation like we were eavesdropping on a practice made it feel even more real.
After closing with “Riding,” an incest tune from his debut album, Palace Brothers‘ “There is No One That Will Take Care of You” (1993)–later covered by Sebadoh–the performer stayed where he was, making himself available to those that wanted to speak with him. The man behind the counter stated that Will likely had some merchandise for sale, but he didn’t. That’s what made this tour so interesting, he wasn’t doing anything that would yield him any monetary compensation at all. He wasn’t even promoting a release. All signs pointed to him having no other intention than simply playing some free shows in a state that was nowhere near his home town. This should make it no surprise then, that he was so open to connecting with his fanbase on a personal level and, while I’m sure that there are always a few starstruck folks that get lost in their own words, the man is such a laid back, accommodating, unpretentious, and engaging character that most folks would all but forget that they were speaking to an artist that they had such a long-time larger than life admiration for. It’s much more rewarding to have a genuine conversation in the moment and any obstacles that may have prevented that from happening for someone wouldn’t have been constructed by Will, they’d be stemming from an individual inability to shake their own concepts of what constitutes a “celebrity” and the idea of how you are supposed to interact with one.
I took the photo that I promised for the man who was standing next to me and it was interesting to see him shift from an excited fan, before and during the show, into having the type of incredibly relaxed conversation with the performer that made it look almost unnatural to not see the both of them holding/drinking tall boys. That was the duality presented throughout this mini-tour–mesmerizing performances delivered by someone that turns back into a regular gent once he puts down his guitar and steps away from the mic.
Mark simply plopped his dog into the arms of the obliging Will Oldham who remained in pose and whistled until I readjusted the camera and got a photograph.
Oldham told me that he had decided to take an earlier flight and would be cutting the mini-tour a day short. He made a last minute shift to switch Seattle‘s Sonic Boom Records in-store back 2 days and would be heading up there immediately after leaving Rocket to do it later that evening. The KEXP radio spot would simply be moved to the next morning, before he knocked out shows in both Bellingham and Anacortes, later that same day.
The night before I had been on Facebook chatting with my old friend Eli from the band LAKE. I had been filling him in about how the shows had been so far, because he was planning to catch that Anacortes stop. He mentioned that they had met Will while LAKE was on a European tour, which Oldham seemed to remember when I mentioned it to him before the show. Eli also felt that Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy should do an in-store performance at the local record store where he lived on Whidbey Island, so I relayed that suggestion, as well. Now that the show was over, Oldham asked if he could give me his email and have me mail him some location that he could play if I knew any, adding that maybe he could possibly even return to the area and give this tour another go in the near future.
Ironically enough, I didn’t head up for the Seattle show, even though it was the one performance out of the four that was actually near my home. We stayed in Tacoma and spent the evening visiting with our friends instead. Based on the testimony of those that I know who went to the Sonic Boom show, it sounds as if it was the most well attended stop yet. I expected as much. When it was all said and done, I was glad that I made the drive South and feel that catching the Rocket Records in-store turned out to be the right move.
Later that night, I told Eli that I had mentioned his idea of a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Whidbey Island show and, although it would make things incredibly convenient for him, it turns out that he was mostly joking with his suggestion. He was already finding issue with getting anyone besides his wife, Ashley (also in LAKE) to head up to the Anacortes show with him and he was fairly convinced that no one else beyond them would attend a Whidbey Island show either. He added that the record store there didn’t even carry any Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums and that Whidbey is currently stuck in some sort of crazy neo-Django movement, with the youth heavily pushing a scene based around less appetizing interpretations of Django Reinhardt-style old-timey guitar jazz. If anybody does have any good suggestions for places around Western Washington state that you feel would be a good fit for a tour like this, please either contact us via email or leave your ideas in the comment section below.
If you like what you’ve heard, please pick up some of this man’s material by visiting his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Palace Music artist pages on the Drag City Records website. Trust me, you’ll be glad that you did.