Concert Review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

Review of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang concert at Maverick Saloon, Santa Ynez, 10/27/10. Originally appeared here on

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy at Home at the Maverick Saloon

Tales from the Tavern program also includes engaging set by Peter Mulvey, Jeffrey Foucault

By | Published on 10.30.2010

It seems fitting that Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Cairo Gang would play a show at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, as was the case Wednesday night as part of the Tales from The Tavern series. Why? Because Will Oldham, which is Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s real name, is a bit of a maverick himself.

Indeed, Oldham’s music, which these days often eschews the traditional song structure of verse/chorus/bridge, doesn’t fit into a nicely labeled box. When I recently asked him what genre he perceives his music to be, he said that, depending who was asking, he could say “it’s underground music, it’s country music, it’s folk music, it’s R&B, it’s jazz, it’s gospel music, it’s experimental music, or innovative music — that’s one that we’ve been joking about lately.” Or, as Britain’s Mojo Magazine recently stated, “Oldham is now a genre unto himself.”

For this short California tour, Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Cairo Gang consists of Oldham on lead vocals and occasional electric guitar, plus the inventive Emmett Kelly on electric guitar and background vocals, Chicago-based Angel Olson on background vocals and Ben Boye on keyboards, and (as is Oldham) Louisville-based Danny Kiely on bass and Van Campbell on drums. This incarnation has only been playing together for a short time, although their tightness would be envied by many bands that have played together for years.

The concert included the bulk of the stellar new album The Wonder Show of the World, the first Bonnie “Prince” Billy album to include “The Cairo Gang” in its name, although in fuller — and more electric — arrangements than on the album. For example, “Merciless and Great” seemed more epic, “That’s What Our Love Is” had a bigger climax, and “Teach Me To Bear You” really rocked out at the end. Particularly cool was hearing Oldham’s evocative lyrics often coming through in multipart harmonies, fittingly of a slightly more rustic vintage than Crosby, Stills & Nash, more like American Beauty-era Grateful Dead.

Oldham, looking sharp in white pants, white shoes, a white button-down shirt, a white baseball cap, a wide belt, and what appeared to be pink nail polish, had a presence and genuineness that was a joy to watch. His voice was assured and in top form, covering a wide range sonically and emotionally, being particularly soulful for “Go Folks, Go” and intense for the cover of “Are You Deceiving Me?”

Oldham joked a bit with the audience, including pointing out that the lyrics to his new song, which I believe is called “Island Brothers,” are printed on the back of some T-shirts for sale at the merchandise table, saying, “Go buy one and you can sing along. We can wait.” For the record, the said lyrics are “Sing only when you’re strong / To others only all night long / And close your mouth / And eyes otherwise.” For this song, Tales from the Tavern’s Carole Ann Colone, who is also Kelly’s mother, joined in playfully on maracas and whistle.

Before Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s performance, Peter Mulvey and Jeffrey Foucault presented a thoroughly engaging hour-long set. Both are Tales from the Tavern alums in solo mode, but due to a lack of available slots in the current series, they played together Wednesday night. This was quite a treat, as Mulvey and Foucault share a delightful rapport in their musical performances and between-song banter.

Particularly funny was a story about their longstanding contest to see which of them can get a bigger lie about the other reported on air or in print. Switching off lead vocals between songs but often harmonizing, their songs ranged from the hugely amusing (“Don’t F*** With My Miller Time”) to the poignant (Mulvey’s new song, “Trempealeau,” with the lyrics “Why can’t you just say ‘I love you’?”). Charming songs, charming performers.

Setlist for Bonnie “Prince” Billy

When The Saints Go Marching In (instrumental intro) / Easy Does It
The Sounds Are Always Begging
You Are Lost
Are You Deceiving Me? — Kevin Coyne and Dagmar Krause cover
Troublesome Houses
Merciless and Great
Go Folks, Go
New Wonder (new song, lyrics include “What shall we do about the fact”)
Break of Day
Island Brothers(new song)
Where Wind Blows
Teach Me to Bear You
With Cornstalks or Among Them
That’s What Our Love Is
It’s Not For Me To Understand — Willie Nelson cover

You Remind Me of Something
Because of Your Eyes — Merle Haggard cover

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site,


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