Monday night, looking like a recovering gambling addict in white pants, a white zippered guayabera, and black sunglasses, Bonnie “Prince” Billy treated a couple hundred hushed listeners to an hour of no-frills folk at Radio-Active Records in Ft. Lauderdale. Taking down cans of Modelo Especial throughout his set, the Kentuckian shared the stage with helluva guitarist Emmett Kelly (aka The Cairo Gang) and singer Angel Olsen, whose deeply wronged voice and 1000-yard stare infused the informal, unmiked performance with an intensity that eludes description. For his part, the Prince (known among friends as Will Oldham) swung from bared-teeth ferocity to soft sincerity (“Plead and beg and plead and beg and …”) to casual curiosity (“Does anyone know much about the aquatic life around here?”) to preacherly urging (“Go folks! Go forth! Go folks! Trust your brain!”) in a free performance that deserved a bottomless tip jar.
BPB and company will play another gratis show — the last on their magnanimous Free Florida tour — Tuesday night at Sweat Records. As the videos below will confirm, you should definitely go. Make sure to check out our interview with Oldham to learn more about the man, the tour, and the way U.S. Customs deals with a vinyl smuggler.
Will Oldham (aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) is heading to South Florida for two free shows and some obligatory family time. -- photo by Valgeir Sigurðsson
Reports of Will Oldham’s supposed elusiveness have been greatly exaggerated. Several notable past press accounts have found Oldham, who performs most often as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, reticent in discussing himself or his works. In 2009, his own mother described him as “ornery” to the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh, in a story whose narrative hinged largely on a city mouse following Oldham to a secret concert given in the rural outskirts of his native Louisville.
Maybe this is a result of confusing the music with the man. Oldham’s overwhelming body of work, starting with the material he released as Palace Music (or Palace Brothers, or Palace Songs) in the early ’90s, can seem hard to penetrate.
There’s no clear starting point for the new initiate, although any is equally good. While certain discs, like 1999’s I See A Darkness, have by now been critically canonized, they’re not dramatically better or worse, or more or less accessible, than the rest.
Oldham’s material is, in most simple terms, folk, but often with a marked Southern gothic bent, and the easy acceptance of mortality that runs through so much of the music of Tennessee and Kentucky. Songs amble, bend, and wander around, sometimes at a dirge-like pace. They obliquely recount tales of drinking, love (usually lost), and other misfortunes, in a way that allows you to be sure Oldham is speaking directly to your pain and nobody else’s.
But the thing is, it’s not all gloom and doom if you pay attention. At the end of all that twangy rambling, there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel, whether in words or pure sound. Even the title track of I See a Darkness — a song that mournfully repeats the refrain of the title — turns brighter in the end. Oldham turns hopeful as he sings, just as some major-key piano chords take the song out to a question-mark end.
And when I spoke with Oldham recently by phone, he was downright cheerful. Maybe it’s because he really, really likes Florida, or at least the idea of it. This month kicks off his Free Florida tour with pal Emmett Kelly (a.k.a. the Cairo Gang), which finds the duo performing a series of free record-store performances throughout the state. Two of those are here in South Florida: Monday, May 30, at Radio-Active Records in Fort Lauderdale, and Tuesday, May 31, at Sweat Records.
But with Oldham launching one of these free tours, by his own account, about once every dozen years, why Florida, of all places? I reached him by phone at his Kentucky home to find out. Birds chirped loudly in the background as we spoke.
What is your personal experience of Florida? How much time have you actually spent here?
Will Oldham: I’m 41, and I probably started going there when I was seven or eight with the family. Then when I got older, I’d go there to play music, and I know we went to Cuba a couple times and had to do that with Miami as a starting point. So that’s been it — spending time there on intense family vacations, and playing music.
You’ve actually been to Cuba? When was that and how did you manage it?
WO: The first time we went, we kind of snuck over and we got nailed on the way back, which kind of sucked. Both trips were in the late ’90s, probably like ’96 and ’98. The second time, my friend Bob Arellano, who’s a musician, assembled this quasi-supergroup, and got us a gig at a music festival in Havana. We got special licenses from the U.S. government to go to Cuba for 10 days or so and played three shows. So the last time was totally legal and totally awesome.
You’re known for having wide, deep, and obscure musical tastes. Were you into any Cuban music before you went there, or did the trip spark any further interest in it?
WO: I don’t have a deep knowledge of Cuban music, although I definitely had a rudimentary knowledge, and more from records Bob had played for me. The first time we went there I did a fair amount of record shopping, which was very exciting, and not very expensive. Unfortunately, since we didn’t go legally that time, on the way back in all those records were confiscated by U.S. Customs. They were actually broken in half.
This news from Chicago-based indie record label Drag City is awesome:
Just before June shuts down the month of May, Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Cairo Gang will instigate the people of Florida to be free. But not from the silly stage of some paid-entry club, with their foolish drinks and age requirements. No, Bonny & Cairo are people who like to do things for people. That’s why, from the Pensacola panhandle to the beaches of Miami, America’s most famous peninsula has in-stores in store for them!
Yes. Seven Floridian record stores will host free performances open to all. There is no concert after the in-store, there is no secret show to ferret out — just one show per city as free as free can be.
So clean your swamp shoes, feed your alligators early and pack the bowl on the way, ‘cause this is a one time deal. May 25th – 31st will be forever known as that week you borrowed your friend’s E-Z pass to hit the road and drive, like a whole half hour away, to see Bonny and the gang from Cairo play in a sweaty outpost where you bought that 60’s comp back in high school. Sure, get high — but maintain your recall please, so that you can tell us all about it, ‘cause there ain’t no way we’re going down to Florida unless it starts and ends with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.