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Stalking Will Oldham

One City, One Band, One Day—Five Concerts

NEVER CRY SUPERWOLF: (from left) Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham get jolly on the new Bonnie "Prince" Billy album.

By Kolby Yarnell | Posted 4/20/2005

Bonnie “Prince” Billy plays the Ottobar April 25 with Jodie Jean Marston and the Anomoanon (featuring City Paper contributor Ned Oldham).

In no place is the one-day tour a bright idea. In New York, it’s a death sentence. Yet on an early March Saturday that’s exactly what Bonnie “Prince” Billy did. Will Oldham, the singer/songwriter/guitarist behind Billy, and guitarist Matt Sweeney snaked through five New York area in-store shows spaced two hours apart, and with an ease that made you think they were either teleporting themselves place to place or catching helicopter rides, puffing on pipes, and tuning their guitars at 1,500 feet.

The only thing more irrational than playing New York City five times in one day is attending all five of those performances. Over six hours and 25 miles around Brooklyn and Manhattan, these two musicians performed songs off their startling new album, Superwolf, and from Oldham’s ample back catalog. They sounded horrible and forgot words. But still, they captivated a punk record store with their gorgeous melodies. They embarrassed an indie clothing store cutie pie. And at one stop, one of their fans touched on the finer points of incest.

On the curb in front of the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix stood a dejected crowd who didn’t make it in for the first stop of the in-store show marathon. Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney were playing inside, and from the door where a note that read no more room for 1 pm show was pasted a chord from “Beast for Thee” came faintly throbbing into our ears. The sun beamed overhead. It was an unusually warm day, and the crowd around me, in vintage Nikes with vintage bicycles, was visibly disappointed. We all recognized the song from the new album and wished we were inside.

Unwilling to stand around any longer, I hopped into one of the cabs crawling along Bedford Avenue, which were waiting for people caught off guard by the weekend disruption of the L train, the subway line that connects Manhattan to this hipster enclave. If this was going to set the standard for the day, I had better get to north Manhattan by 2 if I wanted to see the 3 o’clock show.

Traffic was bad, and when I walked into Kim’s Mediapolis at Broadway and 113th Street at half past 2 there were already enough Columbia graduate students standing around in lightly colored Polos to fill a small lecture hall. This was by no means the same crowd as the last show. People were crammed into the aisles, feigning interest in the CDs for sale, doing their best not to lose their chosen places. In the back I was unable to see what passed for a stage in a back corner. As time passed and it looked unlikely that the two would arrive by 3, in they walked holding their guitars.

Sweeney and Oldham pushed through to the back and started playing almost right away. Oldham couldn’t hit any of his higher notes and the guitars were not in sync. But no one really noticed or cared except for them. Student-fathers bounced their children on their shoulders and sang along to such couplets as “Take you over my knee, and spank you mercilessly” from Superwolf’s “What Are You?” like guests on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I sympathized with the African security guard who stood on a ladder scanning the crowd. He looked at these guys as if they were from another planet. After a short set that included “I See a Darkness” from the 1999 album of the same name, they finished up and jumped in their white van. I got on the subway and hoped that I just might be able to see them play at the next stop.

Outside of Built by Wendy, a small indie clothing store in Little Italy, a crowd of about 65 hipsters stood around the small entrance waiting to get inside. Clearly not everyone would fit, but everybody was fairly civil; the nice weather made standing on the curb soaking in the day’s final rays not so bad. When Oldham and Sweeney arrived half an hour late it was nearly dusk, and they let the crowd in first. Once inside, Sweeney brilliantly suggested setting up in the wide windowsill at the front, assuring even the sidewalk devotees outside a decent view.

Performing songs from Superwolf, Master and Everyone, and Ease Down the Road, Sweeney’s lithe electric guitar work brought an otherworldliness to the warm, earthy intimacy of Oldham’s words and voice. But Oldham kept forgetting the lyrics to his own songs (the third time this happened you wondered about the rumors that they had a “designated joint roller” for the day), and Sweeney, who had them all down, was always there to belt out a friendly reminder. Oldham scrunched up his face as he sang (vocal techniques or nervous tick?), but he nailed the notes amid some impressive guitar playing from both. At the end of a beautiful version of “Blood Embrace,” Oldham asked ever so quietly:

 

Would I give her up at all

Because I know it could not be better

To live without what she provides

When we’re alone and I undress her?

 

He let the words linger amid the blunt stomps of Sweeney’s boot on the wooden sill. For a moment, everyone held their breath and stood motionless, almost hypnotized. They dedicated the last song, “After I Made Love to You,” to the proprietress, Miss Wendy, whose blushes you could feel without even looking at her. When I approached Oldham after the show, he said that the first gig had been surprisingly good, but that the second was bad because they couldn’t hear themselves play. He liked this one, too. I asked if I could catch a ride to No. 4, but he looked at me blankly a moment, then pointed to his head and rocked it from side to side as he repeated the question back to me, adding “No, I don’t think you can” to the beginning. I was happy to walk.

This third show made you suspect what these intimate songs demanded an intimate venue; the last two shows proved such wasn’t the case at all. At yet another Kim’s Video branch, this time one with a sweaty feel on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, Oldham and Sweeney gave a solid and energetic performance to a bigger, younger, and more punk crowd. They mixed up the song list a little and played strong, jeered on by this larger audience. The energy got so high that I was surprised people stood still.

By the time the last show rolled around I’d had just about all I could take. As I waited in line outside of Other Music in NoHo, the official clubhouse of New York’s record geeks, a young woman named Rebecca, who pulled slugs from a hip flask of Jim Beam and had been to every show that day as well, explained that the Palace Brothers’ song “Riding Boy”—which includes the lyric “I love my sister Lisa most of all/ Don’t you know that that’s sinful, boy/ God is what I make of Him”—wasn’t really about incest but about “what’s between a brother and a sister.” This last set was longer, darker, and more relaxed, and they added the songs “I Am a Cinematographer” and “Little Boy Blue” to the list.

Afterward Oldham looked dazed and didn’t have much to say. It had been a long day that confirmed what Superwolf makes clear: These guys make a great duo, and their spring tour promises to deliver some of the most haunting songs of love and death you’ve heard in a long time.

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