Bonnie Prince Billy, Trembling Bells

Keiran Goddard 02/08/2010

“The church is near but the road is icy, the bar is far away but I will walk carefully” - (Russian Proverb).

Let's set stalls. If this review comes off as a little hagiographic, it is not in honour of the saintly venue, but in praise of a different kind of itinerate preacher altogether. Put simply; Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's performance tonight was unquestionably the most moving, humbling and lacerating I have ever witnessed.

Aligning the two decades worth of Will Oldham's output (under various guises since 1992) with the work of any other songwriter, active or otherwise, proves instructive when considering the nascent power of popular music. The experimental lessons of the progressive art-forms have long been absorbed and re-modelled; shorn into two minute thrashes, dragged into dissonant ten minute dirges, quietened to 4'33 of silence... tonight they all seem to lie in an unflowering graveyard: they are academic, in both senses of the word.

What place then for complexity? For the raising of song to the realm of deliberate and provocative recognition? (as opposed to the accidental heartache that almost any melody can elicit given the right contingencies). It happens; some scale mountains whilst the rest pick pebbles from their feet: the neo-symbolism of Bob Dylan, the tightly woven cadences of Leonard Cohen, the pyrotechnic virtuosity of Joanna Newsom, the visceral interiority of Jeff Mangum, the Chanson lineage in all of its decadent precision - all are justly blooming in the sunlight of scholarly approbation.

Bonnie sits squarely at the head of this table, princely crown askew, muttering blue jokes, humming blue moon and screaming blue murder. When he speaks, you listen. When he shouts, you listen. When he whispers, you listen harder. His are words you carve into the thing you think will last the longest (to evoke a lesser light- he is real enough to render your skin a transient parchment). When tonight, he asks “teach me to bear you...” the weight of the lexicon is palpable. We hear a plea of romantic frustration yes, but also the echoes of other usage; teach me to bear with you, teach me to bear you like a child, to give birth to you, teach me to bear witness to your existence, teach me to devour you as prey. The complexity is there, as deeply layered as the earth; centuries of experience lying prone and ambiguous in the soil of expression. And then this; the sedimentary phenomena of being alive unpacked before our eyes and offered up as a gift: 'take this, plant something, you never know, you might just get lucky...'

As resonant as his words are, the size of the echo will only ever reflect the dimensions of the room; and tonight the sonic breadth was as expansive as it was spacious. Emmett Kelly, Shahzad Ismaily (Cairo Gang) and Lavina Blackwall (Trembling Bells) were breathtaking in their accompaniment, empathetic in their arrangements and Protean in their diversity. Between them they sketched out a latitudinous arena, ranging with ease across the landscape of music, from plainsong to pop, there was a timelessness on show, an acknowledgement that there are stories to be told, but that the stories never change, that we can only illuminate them differently, shading or brightening with the guiding hand of melody and tradition.

'I wish my father never whistled, I wish my mother never sang'
In early incarnations, you often felt you were overhearing Oldham; that it was an act of aural voyeurism, not these days, not tonight. His voice is unbelievably versatile, unbelievably powerful; it leads us through a virtuosic display of back-phrasing, intonation, diction and projection; I am not alone in being stunned- the feeling hangs heavy. And he moves, he dances, fully inhabiting his animal frame, charisma over-spilling from bottle to lip. At times he has the grandeur of a prophet, at others the kind of gait one attributes to the missing-link; dancing proof of creationism in the belly of the pulpit.

The effect is devastating, transcendent. These songs are not about loss, they are about the fact that loss exists, these songs are not sexual, these songs are not Godless, these songs are not fearful, these songs are not vengeful- these songs are simply the product of a human-being shorn of the veils and the compromises that dominate common life and by extension, popular art-forms. These songs are brave.

There is a singular gift on show tonight (gift is the operative word -every note feels infused with an unusual generosity of spirit). To my right, I watch a tear roll down the face of a beautiful girl and wonder what shape it will make when it lands on the stone floor. I feel my own response burn my eyes from the moment the music begins to the final settling of silence; it is this kind of beauty that still represents the best reason for us having minds at all.

'And you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know/ And you know I have a drive, to live, I won't let go/ But can you see its opposition, comes arising up sometimes/ This dreadful end position, comes blacking in my mind?'

Some say we are all doomed to be actors, guided by our deficiencies into playing a role that will come in time to destroy us (attrib-James.) Tonight, as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy strikes defiant stance after defiant stance, moving from Lear to Prospero and back again, this rationale strikes you as feeble in the extreme. There is vitality at work here and it has a genuinely transformative power. When the iconic minor chord descent of 'I See A Darkness' swells the foundations of the church with its force, the reason for this power is clear; however affirmative your belief, however tightly held, there is always fragility, there is always fear- within this precarious and unknowable space, there can be trust and there can be truth, something it is easy enough to forget amidst all this bird-noise.