Live: Bonnie Prince Billy & the Cairo Gang Play Dress-Up at Town Hall


The day before, at Yo La Tengo’s show at Maxwell’s.

Bonnie Prince Billy & the Cairo Gang
Town Hall
Wednesday, December 9

Better than: Any other band wearing both pajamas and black suits in the course of one night.

“Are you deceiving me?” went the first line of the tonight’s six-piece opening band, the Babblers. But wait a second, the frontman in that band–despite the hoodie and sunglasses–sounds an awful lot like Will Oldham! Turns out the Babblers are Oldham’s hour-long ode to Babble, the 1979 collaborative album between UK iconoclast Kevin Coyne and German avant-garde songbird Dagmar Krause. A concept album based on the infamous couple of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (Google ’em), Babble also doubles as an exploration of changing mindstates in any relationship–psychotic, murderous or otherwise. As to what the Babblers’ stage garb–which includes not just sunglasses but also urban camouflage onesies–is all about, well, the mind reels. Which is similar to the effect of hearing newcomer Angel Olson.

In the Babblers, she handles Krause’s role expertly and proves the perfect foil for Oldham, who sings at almost a full-throated yell throughout. On the show-stopping “Sweetheart,” Olson drops into ragged, frantic screams that leave the crowd at Town Hall short of breath. Meanwhile the band, helmed by guitarist Emmett Kelly, veers from punk chords to group harmonizing on the last song of the set. For an hour, the Babblers are the weirdest roadhouse Kevin Coyne tribute band in the world.

And then, after a half-hour intermission, Billy and gang return to the stage, now bedecked in black suits, a black doo-rag atop Oldham’s own bald head. Aside from an upright bass and harmonium, the instrumentation had changed little, and while the band still ranged from raucous to pin-drop quiet, they did so at a much slower clip. They started with an elegant cover of Willie Nelson’s “December Day” (from his 1970 album Yesterday’s Wine) and drew heavily from this year’s The Wonder Show of the World, the sparse duo outing from Oldham and guitarist Emmett Kelly, a/k/a the sole member of the Cairo Gang. No matter how slow and nuanced the songs were, Kelly skillfully found space in which to take his solos, while Oldham struck innumerable flamingo leg poses through much of the performance.

Superwolf guitarist Matt Sweeney sauntered out for two numbers but lost in it all was Olson. A highlight of the first set, she was underutilized the rest of the night, save for a luminous take on The Letting Go‘s “Cursed Love” and Lie Down in the Light‘s “So Everyone.” When she reached the line “I have a little magic left in me,” one couldn’t help but wishing we could hear some more of it.

Critical Bias: Wanted to start a religion based on Palace Brothers’ Days in the Wake back in ’94.

Overheard: “Take off your doo-rag!” To which Oldham replied: “No, as now my 360 has a crease in it.”

Random Notebook Dump: Olson evokes Hope Sandoval on one song, Tammy Wynette on another, then turns into a screaming punk goddess on a third. A testament to Krause’s own singular pipes, perhaps?

Set List:

December Day
Troublesome Houses
You Win
So Everyone
That’s What Our Love Is
Heart’s Arms
You Are Lost
The Sounds Are Always Begging
Strange Form of Life
Only Someone Running
With Cornstalks or Among Them
Cursed Love
Ohio River Boat Song
Encore: Go, Folks, Go