Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang, Trembling Bells: London Shepherd’s Bush Empire, August 4, 2010

As a couple of you who’d seen earlier shows suggested yesterday, Will Oldham was on great form for the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang show in London last night. Not sure if anyone else who was there can corroborate, but did he wet himself during the encores?

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As a couple of you who’d seen earlier shows suggested yesterday, Will Oldham was on great form for the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang show in London last night. Not sure if anyone else who was there can corroborate, but did he wet himself during the encores?

No matter, ultimately, though it could have put an interesting spin on the ribald vamping he was indulging in at the time. It was/is the last night of the tour, and Oldham is enthusiastically duetting with Lavinia Blackwall on one of her Trembling Bells songs, “Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart”. It’s a suitably raucous conclusion, with the other members of Trembling Bells fetching up onstage, too.

Strangely, though, it’s only the second song from the Bells’ “Abandoned Love” that is played all night: the band’s opening set begins with “Adieu, England” and then goes off on a new tangent with a bunch of songs that, I suspect, may figure on the tour CD someone mentioned yesterday (and which appeared to be sold out last night). While plenty of writers, not least myself, have pushed Trembling Bells as a profound new British folk-rock band, as a new Fairport Convention more or less, a lot of the stuff here suggests – even more so than on “Abandoned Love” – that they’re actually a kind of reverse Fairport.

That’s to say: a band moving from a very British sound, back towards something rockier, more American, as if Fairport Convention debuted with “Liege And Lief”, then progressed to their self-titled album. It’s odd, but effective, with Blackwall’s mighty voice often buffeted by Michael Hastings’ surprisingly heavy riffing, and the whole thing often resembling Jefferson Airplane, perhaps.

Of course, there’s still a very British base, with a tremendous a capella duet between the classically trained Blackwall and the heartily untutored Alex Nielsen. The finale, too, is remarkable: a frantically churning psych jam augmented by three cavorting female morris dancers.

Blackwall and Nielsen reappear a few minutes later, along with Oldham and the Cairo Gang; Emmett Kelly and Shahzad Ismaily. The blend of Oldham, Kelly and Blackwall’s voices is immediately striking, and proves to be the crux of the whole show, whether on the sepulchral highlights of “The Wonder Show Of The World” (“With Cornstalks (Or Among Them)”, “Someone Coming Through”) or on fairly raucous new versions of “Easy Does It” and “No Bad News”).

Those last two songs are among a very small selection of old material, which hardly constitutes Oldham’s ‘hits’ – apart from a grand rethink of “I See A Darkness”, the vocals tracked by a guesting D V DeVincentis on sax. (a man who, Google reveals, was the guy who wrote Grosse Pointe Blank, and who I believe I met, at Plush’s first London show, while he was over researching High Fidelity; weird). Perhaps it’s a measure of the respect and trust that Oldham’s fans have in him, that he can get away with playing so few favourites in a 100 minute show.

But also, maybe it’s testimony to the strength of “The Wonder Show Of The World”, which increasingly sounds like one of his very best albums. “That’s What Our Love Is”, especially, is tremendous, with Kelly’s tender electrified acoustic, plentifully innovative rustle and zing from Nielsen at the kit, and those towering voices. Oldham is exceptional, often stepping away from the mic to give extra depth and echo to his increasingly powerful vocals.

It seems, too, that as his voice loses more of its eccentricities, he assumes more and more physical quirks. There’s a lot of pogoing, as well as ceaseless theatrical fidgeting, tonight, and the odd flash of a knee as he reaches for a melodica or kazoo to punctuate these wonderful songs. As he leaps and thrashes through even his most medieval ballads, it’s the unstable mixture of solemnity and irreverence that makes a BPB show such a captivating spectacle, as well as a fine musical experience.

So while “The Wonder Show Of The World” feels like a generally spectral affair, the whole show feels much more upbeat and, characteristically, perverse: “Beware Your Only Friend” is hugely hearty. Maybe he worked out his more ethereal side at Manchester Cathedral the other night?

Here’s the setlist:

MEDLEY: Where’s The Show/Let Me Be A Man (Nelson)
Troublesome Houses
With Cornstalks (Or Among Them)
EZ Does It
Island Brothers
That’s What Our Love Is
I See A Darkness
Where Wind Blows
Teach Me To Bear You
Beware Your Only Friend
Go Folks

No Bad News
Someone Coming Through
Love Made An Outlaw Of My Heart


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