Album review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Bill Callahan – ‘Blind Date Party’: a rolling thunder lockdown revue of the Drag City stable, cast in cover versions

The Breakdown

Coming to us this most celebratory of months, Blind Date Party is like a ribbon-wrapped selection box of covers. Don't gorge yourself like you did with those liqueur chocolates that year, when you took to the sofa immobile for hours; savour it. There's two discs, even on the CD; and 19 songs in all. Leave some in the in for later and let it reveal its hidden corners. Gather friends and family around; some you'll fight over, some you'll come to appreciate the butterscotchy nuances of more over time. Some will be closer to your taste than others; yet others, while your partner cannot begin to fathom why you don't like them as much, they'll leap on them with glee. It's something of a rolling thunder revue of Drag City talent webbed together by the wonders of technology, and isn't the label home to lots, bejesus?

NOTHING at all, really.

That, for a lifer musician with new songs in the back pocket, older ones to take out and share with fans on the road across the country and the world, no chance to get into a proper studio even, if it is only to kinda dick around and have a laugh and see what what happens; that was the double-triple-quadruple bind artists found themselves in when that bloody bastard virus came out swinging from a Chinese wet market and ate life as we knew it.

Nothing at all was left to do for talents used to a rhythm of writing, recording, travelling the world. Nothing except, perhaps, as Big Black once memorably put it, to “sit around home, stare at the walls / Stare at the walls and stare at each other.”

What was a committed, lifer musician to do?

Well, the thing about the Drag City stable of artists is: it’s a proper family. And that helped soothe the grind of the solitary.

Those twin pillars not just of the DC rollcall but of contemporary Americana, Bill Callahan and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, embarked on a musical outreach programme pretty early on, using the saving graces of file transfer, Zoom, and the like.

So: what was the plan? Maybe it would be a good idea to hunker down, even virtually, and play with old classics and songs they really liked, they thought. And indeed that was a good idea. How about recruiting people they loved or had always wished to play with, too? Great idea. And now: how about giving that song interpretation a blind date element? Ideal. Tracks were advocated from among the wealth of musicians they knew, and then also paired with another artist with no say in the matter.

A rather lovely, communal plan came to fruition and songs began to crackle across the ether between the world wide web of talent. And thus was the sprawling, 19-track collaborative covers set Blind Date Party born.

That album features the two Bs in musical conversation with Meg Baird, AZITA, Matt Sweeney, the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan, Bill Mackay, Alasdair Roberts, Cory Hanson, Six Organs of Admittance, David Pajo, phew! lots and lots of others. And the songs they got together to breathe new life into include selections from Yusuf Islam, Bill Callahan himself, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Demis Roussos, Billie Eilish, Robert Wyatt, Iggy Pop and more.

What began as a sanity-saver for all concerned and a creative keeping in of the hand flourished to a full-blown double album. Cos like the best parties, even one conducted down the ISDN cabling, it went off with a bang and a swing and some surprising things occurred to live long in the memory.

Drag City sum up this holiday season double drop poignantly: they say it’s “for everyone who’s here and it’s in the name of everyone who’s gone but will never go and will always live with us. This album will, too.”

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Bill Callahan

And as with any covers album, there’s a number of trajectories a treatment can take. Broadly speaking, there’s the relatively reverent cover, when you take a song you love and play it pretty straight, respectfully – a tipping of the hat to a piece of songcraft you admire, adore, the same going for the artist themselves. An act of recognition from one to another.

Then there’s the version in which you take that original and wholly sonically reinvent it in your own image – The Wedding Present, of course, being masters of this with takes like “It’s Not Unusual” or The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday”. And of course there’s the sorta cover when you either kick back and just play it for sheer bloody fun and devil take the hindmost – CUD’s “You Sexy Thing”, mebbe; and right over the end, there’s when you totally and surreally upend the song onto the floor and rebuild as something pretty weird – I’m looking at you, Giant Sand’s “Foxy Lady” and “The Beat Goes On”.

There’s covers albums from which you’ll love the wonkier ones; the runts of a litter, it’s a family. And then there’s that thing where you weren’t overly familiar with the cover before it was brought to your attention and thus it becomes your definitive version.

And you can run the rule over Blind Date Party very much in accordance with the above ventured reading. Of course there’s shades and nuances in there, of course there are. Bear with me here.

There’s a brace of takes which pay tribute to a songwriter dear to the heart of those involved, and these are played out with grace and accorded respect. It’s only right and good that it be Cassie Berman who lends her touch to a take on Silver Jews’ “The Wild KIndness” that’s collective and massed and strong and big on the axe solo and as a song, alive. RIP, David. And the closing take on John Prine’s “She Is My Everything”, which contains lovely, lovestruck lyricism, gets an appreciative, occasionally tremulous reading in the company of Sir Richard Bishop.

Elsewhere, Vietnam vet Michael Burton’s “Night Rider’s Lament” is maybe the perfect choice on which to call Cory Hanson aboard for a straight(ish) country reading – I say straight(ish), as it does buckle and warp in some Holy Modal Rounders-style acid yodelling at the end; Cory’s pale horse inversion of the steed is absolutely one of my albums of the year. Bill C, he completely gets this postcard from the dark side of desert life, you know he has; he kills it. And Leonard Cohen’s “The Night Of Santiago”, a graphic remembrance of a passing tryst of massive passion, takes on the blush of a wiry mysticism in the company of David Grubbs.

“Blackness Of The Night”, a B-side from 1966 when Yusuf Islam when he was plain ol’ Cat Stevens, stares into the darkside with an unusual articulation for the groovy time in which it was written, and Billy is brilliantly placed to see the darkness with that soul-cold harmony he brings. A beautiful indie guitar break makes a proper odyssey of it.

“I’ve Been The One”, the Little Feat ballad, is re-rubbed in absolute heart-wrenching fashion with Bill singing right into your chest next to you in that way only he can. Like him, you’ll be averring: “It must be dust or smoke that’s in my eyes”. Espers’ Meg Baird guests with that appreciation of folk guitar and how she is played beautifully evident.

“Lost In Love”, a massive Antipodean smash for soft rock duo Air Supply, here features Emmett Kelly of The Cairo Gang. He’s been busy with the cover thang recently, also lending those distinctive tones to Devin Hoff’s album reinterpreting the songs of Anne Briggs (and on which he makes an absolute fist of stepping into Bert Jansch’s shoes for “Blackwater Side”.

And then there’s covers explored and rebuilt, presented as a different thing entirely. Hence “OD’d In Denver” reunites the Superwolves, as Bill C brings that profound bass drawl to a taut, spacious and partially electronic reading of the Hank Williams tune bare-naked tale of life on the road, addiction and sudden beds, in cahoots with Matt Sweeney.

Billie Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay” gets a fantastically leftfield electro-bossa-folk reading with Bill C resonant like a mountain bear and the deftest of arrangements from former High Llama Sean O’Hagan, an artist on record as saying he’s “enamoured” of modern R’n’B these days. And it does everything you need a cover to do; casts it in a new light and a gently iconoclastically one, it becomes another beast with another life.

Bill C graciously puts his own “Our Anniversary” out for a rereading and it arrives back on his porch as a pulsing scour courtesy of Chicago’s Dead Rider, who formed from the ashes of US Maple, and on which Bill’s opening, deadpan excerpt of “Que Sera, Sera” gives an excellently weird twist to a version high on shred quotient and bleeding strings and ragged, twin-vocal bombast.

“Rooftop Garden”, from Lou Reed’s 1983 set Legendary Hearts re-emerges from the repair shop as a crisp, shifting raga in the capable hands of George Xylouris. It sounds like they were having a real bundle of fun taking this one on an excursion, Cale-like cello bite scrolling it back to the late Sixties, where it emerges as a lost Velvet Underground classic.

Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” comes as a Chicago-cafe jazz reading with Bill Mackay ever reliable on guitar, Bill (of the Callahan)’s voice adding interesting colour and cutting through the slight muso feel of the original; adding something wiser, a little country earth and dusk. You could imagine this one lighting up some Bleecker Street basement joint on some chill autumn evening.

And so into the weirder. Dirty Three man Mick Turner is a superb choice to bring the lurch and the yaw to an abrading organ-led reading of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song”, Bill and Billy trading lines call and response: “When you’re drunk, you’re terrific, when you’re drunk” Something about the candour and the rhythm of a Robert Wyatt song is unmistakeable and indelible, but Mick and the boys know exactly how far to take the song out to the edge of chaos and dissonance, which h duly does; and there’s the shiver of Billy’s dispossessed, cathartic, multitracked howl.

Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” gets some righteous axe work from Ty Segall, and lurches merrily away as a space-tom swing of extremely wonky rock-soul uplift; and Iggy’s “I Want To Go To The Beach” comes out as an almost gamelan, post-rocky thing, and feels very Gastr Del Sol in the company of Cave and Bitchin’ Bajas man Cooper Crain; it’s rock and dub and Chinoiserie and folk all at once. Very intriguing.

Coming to us this most celebratory of months, Blind Date Party is like a ribbon-wrapped selection box of covers. Don’t gorge yourself like you did with those liqueur chocolates that year, when you took to the sofa immobile for hours; savour it. There’s two discs, even on the CD; and 19 songs in all. Leave some in the in for later and let it reveal its hidden corners. Yep, it really is a box of chocolates, one you can gather friends and family around; some you’ll fight over, some you’ll come to appreciate the butterscotchy nuances of more over time. Some will be closer to your taste than others, and while your partner cannot fathom why you don’t like it they’ll leap on it with glee.

It’s something of a rolling thunder revue of Drag City artists webbed together by the wonders of technology, and hasn’t the label got lots, bejesus?

Bill Callahan and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Blind Date Party will be released by Drag City digitally and on double cassette, double CD and double vinyl on December 10th; there’s also various merch bundles. You can pre-order yours right here or from Bandcamp, here.

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