The Bishop’s House more usually hosts groups of schoolkids getting a bit of history lesson. But it’s an atmospheric place for an intimate gig celebrating the songs of Will Oldham – the self-styled Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
First up, Sharron Kraus was terrific. She has a beautiful voice allied to guitar folk tunes adorned with an odd assorment of percussin and burst of recorder. The songs themselves range from the fairly straightforward to more carefully constructed mixes of drone and recurrence which were a mesmerising start to the evening.
Following it wasn’t a problem though. On the face of it, it’s a bit of an odd gambit to launch a book of Will Oldham’s lyrics by sending someone else out on tour, franchising out the promotion. But the McBonny’s approach made sense.
First because of the choice of musicians (Scottish-based, natch). Alasdair Roberts makes fine just off-centre folk records and has a history of collaboration. Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow and the Workshop brings some folk-rock oomph and was part of the Bastard Mountain project, whose Meadow Ghosts sounded vey much like a lost Palace Brothers tune. Finally Alex Neilson, who has an Oldhamesque voice and has worked with the Bonne Prince himself a couple of times. Neilson is one of those musicians who can at once seem to lose himself utterly in the music yet transmit that to an audience. They were also helped out by a local, Big Eyes’ James Green.
Then there’s Oldham’s songs. Having got the book a couple of days before, what leapt out was that it can’t just be read. This isn’t poetry. The words demand to be sung (pity my family…). And interpreted. Oldham himself has rarely performed them the same way twice and his catalogue is rife with collaboration. So in way it makes sense that he’s not there (though his place is taken by a surprisingly accurate bit of historical colouring done by one of the aforementioned schoolchildren) and the Three Queens In Mourning, as they were billed, do a fine job of exploring new angles on the songs, mixing in some of their own. There’s an ensemble approach to I See a Darkness, an amped up Stablemate driven by O’Sullivan’s guitar and an excellently clattering and stumbling No More Workhorse Blues. Although there’s some Bonnie stuff (Madeleine Mary also gets a look in), it’s quite Palace-heavy and none the worse for that. The closing trio from the Lost Blues collection especially stand out – the ever excellent title track getitng a good hollering from Neilson, a version of Trudy Dies where the pacing and timing is all slightly shifted from the recorded tune to unsettling but good effect and a Glasgow based trio were always going to have a decent run at the Scottish folk based Ohio River Boat Song.
Something different then, but a fine celebration of a great songwriter proving the songs will have a life well beyond their original incarnation and the printed page.
Book can be bought with an accompanying album here.