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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and The Cairo Gang (and The Babblers) played Town Hall (review & setlist)

by Rachel Kowal

BPB & the Cairo Gang @ Town Hall – 12/8/10 (photo by Reuben Strayer)
Bonnie Prince Billy

By this point, it’s no secret that Oldham likes to keep things interesting. The prolific singer/songwriter has collaborated with a myriad of talented musicians (Tortoise, Scout Niblett, Matt Sweeney), performed/recorded under a range of monikers, and has even tried his hand at acting (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy).

His musical act evolves so rapidly that the surprise of the evening at Town Hall came not during the main act when he played with the talented backing band The Cairo Gang, but during the mysterious opener‘s set. Earlier in an interview when asked about the band he shared a bill with, Oldham responded nonchalantly that The Babblers were simply an “obscure” band from Shreveport. But within seconds of seeing the group (and hearing the two vocalists), it became apparent that they were actually just a wild permutation of the main act, led by Oldham himself.

With his arm outstretched above his head and his eyes cast heavenward, Oldham’s alias had more than a passing resemblance to a cult leader. But instead of matching Reeboks, he and his backing band wore sunglasses and one-piece pajama suits (complete with a zipper, hood, and footsies). The stage itself was decorated accordingly with a mismatched collection of bedroom lamps.

Given Oldham’s involvement, The Babblers of course had that characteristic love it or hate it Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy twang, but the songs were also quite distinct from Oldham’s lengthy discography. Female vocalist Angel Olsen sang songs with a thrilling intensity as if her adopted persona gave her more confidence, freedom, and creative power. Olsen was a joy throughout the evening, but her role in The Babblers really let her shine since it occasionally gave her reason to exchange her smooth, rich vocals for a no-nonsense battle cry. “Sweetheart, Sweetheart, let’s get it together!” she shrieked in desperation during one song. Upon witnessing Olsen’s sudden transformation, the crowd broke the polite silence perpetuated by the fancy theatre with enthusiastic cheers. Together on stage, Oldham and Olsen were like cool criminals. There was a perverse quality to their back country gospel rock that made it mesmerizing to witness.

In recent weeks, the baffling story of The Babblers has been slowly unfurling. One theory holds that The Babblers project was modeled after the pre-existing work of Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause, and after comparing Wednesday night’s notes to the track listing for the British duo’s album (conveniently titled ‘Babble’), this definitely seems to be the case. The Babblers played the entirety of ‘Babble’ in sequence.

Following the rousing set by The Babblers, there was a quick costume change and Oldham and his band emerged once more – this time under the guise of a different name. Everything was back to normal. (If your definition of normal allows for Oldham’s eyeliner, fancy suit/do-rag combo, awkward dancing, and weird tics – that is.)

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and The Cairo Gang were definitely not as volatile as The Babblers (had Oldham one-upped himself?), but they were still compelling to watch. In her becoming black dress, Olsen charmed the crowd once again, even if her vocals were more subdued for the second half of the evening. After such an intense display earlier, I’m impressed she could continue to sing so beautifully.

Though the majority of the set was lifted from the group’s recent collaborative album, ‘Wonder Show of the World,’ Oldham also included a handful of older tunes, including “Only Someone Running” (which featured Matt Sweeney on guitar) and the breathtaking “Cursed Sleep.” They concluded their encore with “Go Folks, Go,” which allowed Oldham to retain the position of charismatic religious fanatic once more as he echoed the song’s title repeatedly, as if delivering a benediction to his receptive crowd of followers.

I don’t think the Town Hall staff and promoters knew what they were getting into when they booked Will Oldham, but I’m certainly glad they took a chance and surrendered to the crazy pajama’ed gang and its fearless leader.

Bonnie Prince Billy & The Cairo Gang opened for Yo La Tengo at Maxwell’s one night earlier. Their Town Hall setlist is below…


Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang Setlist
December Day (Willie Nelson cover)
Troublesome Houses
?
So Everyone
That’s What Our Love Is
Heart’s Arms
You Are Lost
The Sounds Are Always Begging
This Strange Form of Life
Only Someone Running
With Cornstalks or Among Them
Cursed Sleep
Teach Me to Bear You

Encore
?
Ohio River Boat Song (Greatest Palace Music – 2004)
Go Folks, Go

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