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Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bitchin’ Bajas (live at Café OTO)

24 March 2016

Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bitchin' Bajas (liveI think about what Bonnie “Prince” Billy has been to me the last few years since I began listening to him. I was late to the party, obviously, but caught up very fast and developed my obsession in earnest.

Certainly his first role in my life was as my marriage counsellor. Honestly — I attribute almost all of my matrimonial well being to my deep listening to of his songs — “Hummingbird” especially and all from Now Here’s My Plan. With words and a clarity of voice that penetrates, Will Oldham reminded me of what it is to be in love. I have examined my past through Sings Greatest Palace Music, Wolfroy Goes To Town and everything else, really. I explored a newer sense of humour with Barely Regal, and now Mr Oldham is advising my future. Bonnie “Prince” Billy is my life coach.

If you’re looking for an objective point of view, I’d have to suggest putting this away and reading a phone book instead. If Mr Oldham’s is the voice reading said phone book — count me in. Because his voice has the effect of flowing right into the core, likened only to the sensation of drinking pure cool water when water is just what is needed. His is the most satisfying musical entity that I have ever heard. He can crack it, he can raise it, and even when he murmurs his stories are clear. The resonance and the vibration, the quality; he is telling a story, but it is simply the sound of him that goes so deeply down.

This night, standing only a metre from him in the bare stage of Cafe OTO in London, so that I hear not just what is amplified of his voice all around me but also the raw vocals just in front, his voice feels like the most solid thing. Watching Mr Oldham perform is rather distracting, as he is so jittery and moving all the time, his head and hands and body. But the voice stays so steady, making its way inside with cellular penetration — one is left slightly elated — like the first stages of being in love; and so I remember again, cyclically.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bitchin' Bajas live at Cafe OTO

I think a lot of people will perhaps talk about the fact that maybe he’s gone into transcendental meditation or motivational speaking, or he’s found some kind of light, judging from the new LP Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties. What he’s doing for some of the people listening to him is offering a gift. So one may take the juxtaposition, the parallel of his beautiful voice together with some ultimately super positive words and go away with both reverberating, so that even the next day on waking the effect is still there.

Get up, get dressed, a little self-examination and the revelation that the purpose is to be, not to be looked at is still relevant. Take away all the self-conciousness, take away all of the worrying about things that just don’t really matter and think about the more important concept of what it is to be; who am I? What is this world? What is my role in the world? What can I do with it? Not what can the world give me or what is it judging me on, but what can I do with it? Even days later, one is compelled to be informed of better ways of being; to recall that despair is criminal.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy seems to be completely in his own world; he never gives what is expected. He certainly ranks as one of the most prolific recording artists ever. One listens to an album by him, one makes images and one may think they know what it is all about. He’s infamous for being a little bit dirty — right out there with sexual reference, nevermind the innuendos. Mr Oldham is also infamous for giving really odd performances. His physical presence is immense, although he’s not a huge guy. I’ve read that he dislikes live performance and so chooses what to do on the night according to his whims.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bitchin' Bajas live at Cafe OTO

This night at Cafe OTO is very much a live rendering of the record, perhaps a surprise in itself. The audience is riveted and unlike any other I’ve experienced at a reasonably quiet gig in London, in that there is no talking over, no mobile rings — only rapt attention. Aside from one fan who calls out meekly for some more generally familiar Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs — to which Mr Oldham softly states that it isn’t going to happen — the entire room is polite. We are fairly tranced out as a whole, completely involved in the repetition of the voice loops as well as all the synthesized and actual instrumentations. I can’t think who else could command an audience so.

Mr Oldham performs as if he is unaware of all of us. He speaks to his fellow musicians, the Bitchin’ Bahas, from time to time. They in turn are mostly silent, creating their bevy of drones and spiritual sound art. He welcomes onstage the inimitable Charles Hayward, who calmly takes up percussion and joins in from about song three through to the end. Mr Hayward seems very comfortable and it is something special to experience this toned version of him. His instruments are familiar to anyone who’s seen him play before, but Mr Hayward is very clearly not powerhousing and finds a softness which fits brilliantly with the melodic droning produced by the others.

I asked some people who had been at all three nights of the residency at Café OTO if every evening the show had been the same. The answers I got were so weird in their variation. Some people said yes, it was all exactly the same set; others said it was completely different each time. Who knows? We take what we want from it. I don’t think Bonnie “Prince” Billy probably ever bows down to the rules of what one is to do when promoting an album. He seems at least to me to do what he needs to do. If people want to go see him and give him their money, well he needs to make a living; at the very least he needs to be able to afford to continue making music, because that seems to be his compelling purpose in this world, much more a mission than an ambition.

That Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s power of persuasion has its iconic effect on a little London venue, silencing a bubble audience and defying all selfish notion is in itself a magnificent feat of will. That his performance has left me gushing and full of awe is less than surprising. Show your love and your love will be returned — I only hope that Bonnie “Prince” Billy knows what he does to us.

-Maryna Wolf Fontenoy-

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