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Bonnie Prince Billy @ Bangor Open House


A reverent hush falls on Bangor Abbey, as it must do on a weekly basis in a working church, and Kieran Gilmore, director of the splendid Open House festival thanks the assembled throng for respecting this “sacred space”. To be fair, he does not need to make the request too firmly, because the sanctuary is already silent, and the air is crackling with anticipation. It is not often that an artist as original and bold as Bonnie “Prince” Billy plays in this humble town but his delicate and strange hymnals fit the scene perfectly. “When you ask me to sing it feels like my heart would burst with pride,” he croons on ‘2/15’ before seguing into a glorious rendition of ‘New Partner’, which finds Oldham, to use his birth name, stretching his voice in unexpected directions. So often whispery on record, in this hallowed hall it rings inside the stonework and washes along the pews.

As it has been noted many places elsewhere, the music sounds old, worn and much loved, but it’s far from the ersatz folk you get with lesser artists who believe that Americana is all about singing about heartbreak and cigarettes with the occasional mention of a barn. Oldham offers something else entirely. While his voice remains in the upper registers, his control is remarkable, as he finds new notes and layers within ‘I Called You Back’. Elsewhere, an a cappella version of the traditional ‘The Banks ‘O Red Roses’ is so haunting that it sounds disembodied, almost as if it is echoing from the Appalachian mountains. When it is finished the audience do not know if they should clap or let the quiet resonate. Earlier, Gilmore told us that we would be able to hear a pin drop during tonight’s performance – and he was right.

However, for an artist whose musical output frequently welcomes the apocalypse with open arms, Oldham cuts quite the figure of jollity. His beard, which he says tastes of whiskey, is at odds with the eyeliner but impressive as ever, as is the little way he pivots on one leg like Jethro Tull. He yips and yodels during ‘A Wolf Among Wolves’, and he even makes ‘Death To Everyone’ sound happy go lucky. So often dismissed as a harbinger of backwoods doom, tonight Oldham knocks out banter between – and occasionally during – songs with gay abandon. Consistently witty and charmingly odd, he treats the audience to non-sequiturs about volcanoes, gravity and lost suitcases alongside anecdotes about Muhammad Ali, Bill Withers and Don Everly who has, so we’re told, “twin Mexican wives” and is “a terrible, mean man who didn’t show up to his own brother’s funeral.” This deadpan humour infuses some of the song choices too. After claiming that “we reap the benefits of the loose screws in R. Kelly’s brain”, he turns that artist’s ‘The World’s Greatest’ into an emotive lament. It is difficult to think of another artist who could pull it off with such subtlety – on this evidence he could take any modern dross and make it sound like it hails from an older world.

That said, Oldham is no obtuse artiste. Rather, he wants his audience to have a good time. He asks for requests, is greeted by a catcall of song titles, and sets about playing each of them. So, we get ‘Horses’, ‘A Minor Place’ and a transcendent version of ‘I See A Darkness’. It is a lovely contrast to (and you can insert the name of your own aloof musician here) those who play gigs for their own benefit rather than the enjoyment of the people who had paid good money to be there, and he responds to each demand courteously. “Music,” Oldham says, “is supposed to be transformative,” and tonight it surely is. Ross Thompson