I've never seen Modified Arts as packed as it was last night during Will Oldham's performance as Bonnie Prince Billy. And it's no surprise why. More than 60 people jammed into the downtown Phoenix music venue to watch the iconic and enigmatic indie folk hero's long, powerful concert that lasted well into the wee hours of the morning.
But no one seemed to mind the fact that things finally wrapped up just after 2 a.m. (with the exception of exhausted show promoter Jeremiah Gratza, who was kvetching about having to get up at 6 a.m. to start setting up tonight's Calexico show), because they'd just witnessed a compelling gig from Oldham, who was making a rare Valley appearance. Over the course of two hours, the freaky folk artist (who uses "Bonnie Prince Billy" as a nom de guerre) pulled out more than 20 different songs from throughout his vast oeuvre from the past decade and a half, including more than a dozen studio albums.
Unlike many of the Oldham faithful, it was my first time seeing him in the flesh. And all that I can say is that hearing his golden Americana-laced songs coming out of my iPod isn't as profound as experiencing it live and in person. I may not have followed the cat's 25-year career performing under various personas and bands (including as Palace Brothers...or Palace Songs...or just merely Palace), but I was equally enraptured by the man and his music, just like many in attendance
When the artist and the five members of his backing band first got on stage at around midnight (both BPB and opening band White Magic arrived late to Modified), I was dog tired from walking around First Friday prior to the show. But as soon as he launched in his set, I kinda came alive. Local vinylphile Shane Kennedy, who was in the house, remarked that there's so much to appreciate in Oldham's music, from its richness in complexities and musicianship to the vulnerability and power of his haunting, off-kilter lyrics.
"It's 'psycho Americana' and I like it," Kennedy says.
His songs felt epic, whether Oldham was backed all five of his accompanists or just strumming alone. There's a certain power to the music, heavy in emotion and anguish. And the mascara-wearing 38-year-old makes a somewhat dramatic figure as he sings, occasionally rocking back and forth with his eyes closed and weaving a spell over his crowds. Oldham's warbling growl was pitch perfect both in his solo songs (like "Careless Love," from his 2006 disc Ease Down the Road) or harmonizing with Cheyenne Mize (especially on the splendorous duet "Love Comes to Me"). Besides singing along with Oldham, she also played her electric violin is furious fashion all evening. Mize wasn't the only one in top form, as the rest of the talented ensemble impressed with their skills, including mandolin player Jon Kempf, upright bassist Josh Abrams, and legendary indie rock drummer Jim White (who's renowned for his performed alongside Nick Cave as well as Cat Power and his own band Dirty Three).
But even after two straight hours of performing, Oldham and Company had enough energy to blast out a raucous cover of Stanley Brothers "Nobody's Darling on Earth," including coming back for an encore (essentially) consisting of singing the song's final refrain one last time. Like I said, epic.
Last Night: Bonnie Prince Billy at Modified Arts
Better Than: Watching BPB on the Internets.
Personal Bias: I own a western shirt, but (unlike a portion of the crowd), I chose not to wear it. I've have more than a few Americana and indie folk albums in my music collection.
Random Detail: Bonnie Prince Billy's Econoline tour van has a bumper sticker that says "Keep the Country Country."
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Further Listening: The entire Oldham discography, from 1994's Days in the Wake to this year's Beware.
By the Way: "Psyko" Steve shared a Stella Artois or two in Modified's office with myself and Gratza while White Magic was on stage.
One More Thing: I definitely smelled weed being smoked during the final songs of the evening.