Bonnie "Prince" Billy at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/16/13

Categories: Last Night
Mark Kartarik
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
With Bitchin Bajas
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Monday, December 16, 2013

When Will Oldham walked on stage at the Cedar last night, he did so without any introduction. He simply ambled up to the microphone, guitar in hand, and slung it over his shoulder, almost unnoticed at first by the sold-out crowd. For someone who's made a habit of taking on characters over the years -- chiefly, of course, that of Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- he was as unassuming as could be, dressed in a blue gingham shirt and faded jeans. Only his bald head and thick gnarl of a beard gave him away.

And then so, too, did his voice.

See Also: Slideshow: Bonnie "Prince" Billy at Cedar Cultural Center

There were truly no frills about Oldham's performance Monday night, and he set the tone accordingly with the opening song, "The Banks of Red Roses," which he sang acapella. Even his acoustic guitar, his lone accompaniment, would lie dormant. The remainder of the evening would revolve around Oldham's voice and the strange power that it possesses, with the guitar providing little more than an anchor along the way.

Mark Kartarik
Mark Kartarik
Oldham's is not a particularly good voice. It's brittle, often goes off-key, and cracks and breaks when he ventures outside of its narrow range. But it's those very limitations that he uses to help color each of his songs; in fact, he's created a whole world with it, one of darkness and letting go, where nature becomes its own twisted character and even God has to search to find people. If such a world did anything other than crack or break around the edges, it couldn't be real.

He can use it to surprisingly dramatic effect, too. On "Heart's Arms," in particular, Oldham really got behind the words and belted them out with full force, that raspy warble turning into something strange and beautiful as it morphed into nothing more than hoots and hollers. You almost wondered just how well he could actually sing if he really tried -- but then that's the trick: Oldham takes on the voice of his characters, inhabits them and their imperfections.

It wasn't just Oldham's characters that he took on, either. One of the more cryptic songs of the night, "64," was based on the verses of an Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. He worked in a couple old folk songs, as well, including opener "Red Roses," each of which worked in perfectly with the fabric of Oldham's originals: together, they formed a tapestry that was ancient and weathered, parables with no clear moral code. Even the pair of Everly Brothers covers felt at home.

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