by / July 30th, 2010 /

Bonnie Prince Billy & The Cairo Gang – Whelan’s Dublin

Oh dear. Bonnie Prince Billy’s fans all realise just how lucky they’ve been to get a ticket for this most intimate Whelan’s show (he could easily fill Vicar St, you suspect) and before the night’s out, they’ll make silly heckles and sounds between songs to vent their giddiness at seeing the much-exalted Americana Mystic mere feet away from them. They threaten the night at one stage. Dads are trying to dance and ‘have the craic’ with Mr Oldham, while slightly younger goers are filming and snapping. Maybe State is just getting old.

At the same time, it’s easy to appreciate the place in their hearts occupied by Will Oldham. He has a shamanistic presence both on stage and on his dizzyingly prolific recorded output, conjuring worlds and ages and faces with that honeyed lilt and vehicles of varying styles. He loves to collaborate too, something that must contribute to his evergreen inspiration. Tortoise, Johnny Cash, Matt Sweeney, Mark Lanegan and Soulsavers are examples. The Cairo Gang in question is Emmett Kelly, a masterful acoustic guitarist and harmonic foil, while Lavinia Blackwall and Alex Neilson from Scottish support act Trembling Bells add a third harmony and percussion respectively. While they shimmer away, the conductor may have retreated back to the shadows behind the amps, the cue-ball scalp and fuzzy handlebar reflecting a little light.

When he steps forward again, he mesmerises and seems mesmerised all at once. He fixes a stare on something and folds and unfolds those arms while the song frees itself out of his contorting mouth. He steps beyond the man-with-microphone formula, entering in and out of a trance. The eyes seem sunken and lifeless, but the body is animated and charged. During ‘The Sounds Are Always Begging’ (a charming, focused tune about wild guitars pleading to be heard), you imagine a man in the throes of a heated argument with someone who won’t listen.

It helps that the songs are journeys in themselves. Each one, mostly taken from 20th (yes, 20th) LP The Wonder Show Of The World, is like watching something grow in a few minutes before your eyes. Roots take hold. The body extends itself before flowers and fruit begin to pop open. When someone blurts out ‘amazing’ after ‘I See A Darkness’, it’s a release following a song that at one point had made the room quiver quietly with goosebumps, his voice climbing and swooping and purring. With encore out of the way, he stands at the edge of the stage and waves goodnight. When the crowd give voice to their enduring hunger, he makes a ‘that’s it’ gesture, follows it with a ‘time for a pint’ gesture, and hops down into the crowd to be mauled.

Photo by Gareth Mooney on Flickr