Observations from a Day Spent Following Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Tour of Washington State
By Andrew Hall | 14 June 2012
It’s fairly obvious that Will Oldham’s world isn’t quite our own. A cursory listen to almost any record from his massive back catalogue full of songs just slightly stranger than one might expect at first glance, sometimes skirting folk and country tradition and often loaded with dirty jokes and disarming language—does anyone ever forget an opening line like “If I could fuck a mountain / Lord, I would fuck a mountain”?— could make that apparent. But then so could the knowledge that he’s sung backup vocals on his own song, “I See a Darkness,” with Johnny Cash; acted in a number of acclaimed films including Old Joy, The Guatemalan Handshake, and Wendy and Lucy; appeared in an alternate video for Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”; conducted a remarkable interview with R. Kelly last year; and spent a week this year touring Washington state by simply driving himself from record store to record store, playing shows with inconsistent-at-best advance notice.
Drag City posted a schedule for this tour a few weeks ago, but as of this writing, it’s only semi-accurate. Were one to follow it, they would miss the show he told me he would be playing in Bellingham this afternoon and arrive to find Sonic Boom in Seattle simply selling records, as Oldham decided on the morning of Monday, the 11th, to play the instore that day instead. I only found this out because I drove to Tacoma, something I don’t do often enough, to see him play at Rocket Records that afternoon, knowing I’d be unable to make the Wednesday evening show.
While Tacoma is certainly developing—a few blocks down the street will get you to a craft beer bar, a shop serving Stumptown coffee, and some amazing used record stores where I’ve found original Lee Hazlewood records, among a million other things—there’s little evidence of this growth around Rocket Records, where Oldham’s appearance was marked by a generic sign outside that read “LIVE MUSIC AT 3PM!” We got there early because I had no idea what kind of draw Bonnie “Prince” Billy would have in Tacoma at 3 PM on a Monday afternoon, and walking the area, with its lack of construction and its faded paintjobs on single-family homes roasting silently on a surprisingly warm early June afternoon, left me feeling like a fetishist wandering into a stack of thrift store Polaroids. Unlike Seattle, where single family homes and shops are constantly being upended through rampant development of mixed-use buildings—all of which seem to feature the same neon vomit paintjobs and tags reading “Take this city back from our greedy developers and our very corrupt public officials” on notices of proposed land use action—Tacoma at a cursory glance seems worlds removed, though obviously it couldn’t possibly be.
Yet the sense that I wasn’t necessarily in the time or place I thought I was persisted as he set up in front of posters promoting records mostly made between 1993 and 2007, when whoever was responsible for putting up new posters appeared to have lost interest in keeping up appearances. A shirtless dude gave Oldham delay instead of reverb during his brief soundcheck, and approximately fifteen people came in that afternoon to hear him play after an intro delivered about fifteen minutes before he actually planned to go on.
In spite of any initial cattiness Oldham might have displayed about that introduction, his seeming standoffishness gave way entirely to one of the warmest, most striking performances I’ve ever seen. With just his voice, so much richer in person than on-record and so totally surprising as a result, he played a handful of songs, most of which seemed to include at least one line referencing the existence of God or legs being spread open in some capacity, before inviting the audience to provide him with “questions, comments, and requests.” The very small group proceeded to take full advantage of this.
The environment quickly turned casual, with requests only being turned down when Oldham either couldn’t remember how a song went (which was fairly common, as one might expect of someone who has been doing this for twenty years and practically released at least an hour’s worth of music every single one of those years) or had never been responsible for playing guitar on it, as was the case with requests from songs from The Wonder Show of the World (2010) or Superwolf (2005), his collaborations with Emmett Kelly, aka the Cairo Gang, and Matt Sweeney, respectively. When invited to, he would display his encyclopedic knowledge of folk music, citing inspirations and reference points at rapid-fire speed, but he never came across as condescending.
After he brought the requests to a close (he obliged “West Palm Beach,” “One With the Birds,” “A Minor Place,” and quite a few others), he gave us “Riding” and that, I assumed, was to be it. Then I found out that he’d decided that day to move his Seattle instore from Wednesday evening to just three hours after the one I’d just seen, and I thus did what anyone who had the day off and misguided priorities would do: I immediately headed back north to watch Will Oldham play again.
Despite the short notice, Sonic Boom was pretty full by the time Oldham climbed on top of a wooden pallet atop a rack full of records. I had no idea whether or not he’d play essentially the exact same set again or if it’d feel more like a continuation of what I’d seen earlier in the day, and it was most definitely the latter. Despite the better attendance, Oldham continued the open dialogue format, only turning down a request for “West Palm Beach” because he’d played it earlier that afternoon. He told us a story of running away from a failed ten-day retreat in rural Illinois to Zach Galifianakis’ farm in North Carolina, which then immediately gave way to Galifianakis saying, “Oh, by the way, we’re shooting a Kanye West video here this weekend” and a camera crew arriving no more than forty minutes after Oldham did. He seemed utterly overjoyed to play “The World’s Greatest” for us, and attempted songs including “For the Mekons, et al” even when the song ended prematurely if there was a verse, a few lines, or a chord that he didn’t necessarily have committed to memory.
From there, Oldham said he was headed to Bellingham the following morning to play another instore that afternoon, and then to Anacortes that evening for yet another. The Anacortes date was listed as part of his tour itinerary, while Bellingham wasn’t; hopefully at least a handful of people know what’s up.