Bonnie “Prince” Billy / London Sacred Harp (live at the Union Chapel)

by Freq | 2017-07-29T09:21:35+00:000000003531201707 09:21

London
27 July 2017

Bonnie Prince Billy live July 2017Growing up in North Carolina with a fair amount of Baptist and other mountain church influence, I have been no stranger to shape note, or square hymn singing. It’s a strange old thing which the London Sacred Harp group has perfected for the here and now.

This group is weird, not at all modernising the old way, but doing it as it was meant to be done, songs out of a hymnal, chosen by various members and lead by the chooser. They promote themselves freely as a community music group which anyone is welcome to join. Their only concession to admit that this is a performance is to tell us they are not used to performing and politely ask if we as the audience could please hold off applauding until the end as it throws off the singing.

Their volume is impressive and the harmonic drones they create are mind-boggling. As they go they increase their intensity to fevered pitches, not unlike the religious frenzy of those little clapboard churches I remember well. There is more than a small rapture going on among them and voices are all that it took.

It is very difficult to isolate one person’s voice and identify its user. There is one woman of the group whose voice soars out past the others from time to time, over or across the harmonies. At once it hurts and thrills the ear. I believe she is the quite pregnant young lady and I believe I figured this out only because she sat and sang for awhile which helped to determine that it was she who was so gloriously separate from the group while being totally part of it. I thought her voice would not be at all out of place singing Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs.

A song sheet was provided and an invitation to join in was issued. No one joins in the singalong, but I’d bet a lot that many are going to try out at least one session of shape singing in the near future. It is one of the oddest things I’ve enjoyed in London, and the slight culty feeling is more than a bit tempting.

Bonnie Prince Billy live July 2017

So tonight’s theme is voice. Will Oldham as Bonnie “Prince” Billy arrives onstage with just his guitar and gets right on with singing “A Minor Place”. The audience murmurs happily. You never know what you’re in for at a BPB gig; I share the feeling of excitement and relief that we’re going to be on some familiar ground at least. Not that it would be awful to have him sing new stuff or strange stuff — we’ve been down that road before — no, it’s just wonderful when Mr Oldham lets you hear him in person cutting up with favourites.

Voice, a keenly repeated theme in Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs is definitively the feature of this whole evening. A master at using his, Mr O really highlights hisself, his range, his vocal capabilities when he sings so raw and bare like tonight. In contrast with the shape singers, his voice alone does not sound like a multitude, but rather one voice capable of doing a multitude of things to a listener’s soul. I have read that he claims to not like performing live, but then he puts himself right there, very free with his oddities, so vulnerable and so unselfconscious in front of an audience and the contact he creates, his voice to their ears, is so intimate and personal, like no-one I’ve ever listened to otherwise.

Thankfully Mr O breaks the spells he casts occasionally with a bit of humour, he plays with the audience like the stage pro he is, so we can stop blushing from time to time in order to laugh a little. He tells stories like a proper Southerner and I’m not going to recount them for you here, it’s not my place to do so. It was all just so intimate and simple that if I kept on writing it would turn out to be a boring play by play which would dull the fullness of what it was being there. I will tell you that I expect Manuel Cueva‘s shop in Nashville, Tennessee is going to get a lot of new overseas orders. We also learned a little more about the stories behind Chivalrous Amoekons, Mr Oldham’s love of Merle Haggard and just how Will Oldham feels about coders who spend all their energy creating clickbait.

Bonnie Prince Billy live July 2017Honestly, I expected tonight’s show might be a playthrough of BPB’s Merle Haggard tribute record Best Troubador¬†and we do hear the beautiful “Roses In Winter” and “I’ve Got No Time To Cry”. They do not disappoint, especially in this stripped bare way where again, voice and story dominate. But one record is not on show here, so we get many special treats from Mr O, with clean renditions of many favourites such as “I See A Darkness”, “You Remind Me of Something”, “Omaha”, “World’s Greatest”, (my favourite) “Horses” and “I Called You Back”. Even “Black Captain”, which nearly cracked me in pieces along with a wonderful lesson story of how “… to be witness to the decline of the legacy is a beautiful thing…” ; a timely reminder when the world has lost so many of its legacies in recent years. Perhaps this is a wonderful time to be in.

It was certainly a wonderful evening. I also want to mention what a fabulous venue the Union Chapel is. Obviously a perfect choice for the acoustics to highlight a musical event about voices, and staffed by some of the warmest and most welcoming folks in London.

-Maryna Fontenoy-

Source URL: http://freq.org.uk/reviews/bonnie-prince-billy-london-sacred-harp-singers-live-at-the-union-chapel/