Monday, May 08, 2006

Heart of Darkness

Bonnie Prince Billy, Warmer Milks & Ponnieheart
The Bottletree
Birmingham, Alabama
Wednesday, May 3

A strange allure beaconed from Birmingham on Wednesday, May. 3rd. Something told me that I definitely did not want to miss the Bonnie Prince Billy show at The Bottletree. The venue is a new spot opened by drummer Brian Teasley (Man… Or Astroman?, the Polyphonic Spree, Humans, the Vue et. al.) and partner, Merrilee.

The whole affair became something of a Heart of Darkness trip as I made the trek west on I-20 from Atlanta to Birmingham. Will Oldham held a strange sway over me and apparently many of the local natives as well – word that the show had sold out was spreading quickly. So I plunged myself into the wilds of Alabama to bare witness.
Finding the venue was easy. As the directions indicated, The Bottletree is on Crestwood Ave., just past Mike’s Pawn and Gun Shop. Easy enough...

Ponnieheart finished up what looked like a solo acoustic set as I walked in. Lexington, KY six-piece Warmer Milks played next, and were erroneously listed on the flier as “Milk Warmers,” which made for a difficult Google search afterward. And though the group’s massive, drone-heavy dirge is a stark contrast to Bonnie Prince Billy’s rural melodies it’s hard to imagine a more well-balanced opening act.

On stage, the group’s frontman -- whose name I presume is Michael, because that’s what his belt said – was an absolute monster. Amdist swelling feedback from two guitarists and staccato rhythms plunked out by dueling drummers and another guy twiddling knobs, he let out a handful of the most blood-curdling screams I’ve ever endured. Parts of the set reminded me of US Maple, other parts reminded me of Sonic Youth, Godspeed You Black Emperor et. al.

Rarely does an opening band come as close to stealing the show as did Warmer Milks, and if anyone other than BPB closed the show, the headliner would have been dead in the water.

Michael kept his back to the audience for large parts of the set, but each time he showed his face it was in a display of pure demonic aggression. Every time I snapped a picture I couldn’t help but worry that these shots were going to come off looking like some shitty hardcore band. After all, this guy has a lot of tattoos and he looks pretty angry...

His presence was that of a ghastly ogre that conveys much more than just a dramatic effect from the stage. This shit is for real as it dredges up dark waves of alienation and social anxiety. His presence is absolutely surreal and totally confrontational. This is the kind of fear and anxiety that I want from a horror movie.

When I say he was a monster onstage I really mean this guy exudes psychic angst. His voice clawed at the air like a violently disembodied spirit, and did so in a way that was so inviting it made me question my own state of mind. Never has watching someone work out their demons like this been so captivating; not since I was a teenager seeing Skinny Puppy for the first time, anyway.

Warmer Milks served as the perfect head-cleaning bout of noise rock to clear the way for Bonnie Prince Billy.

Backing up a bit, this was more of a Superwolf show, being that Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney were singing and playing guitar. Brother Paul Oldham was playing bass. Former Rites of Spring bassist Michael Fellows was playing keyboard and Peter Townsend played drums.

From the moment the group took stage, Oldham’s spectral, Southern presence -- highlighted by smudges of black make-up smeared under his eyes -- was electrifying. He has almost made a religion out of his idiosyncrasies and social weirdness. When he took the stage looking like a deranged extra from the set of Gummo, mumbling “I got clown on my face…” the crowd snapped like a mousetrap with calamitous applause.

The group glided sincerely through songs like “My Home is the Sea,” “I Gave You” and “Beast of Thee.” It’s this balance of Oldham laying on his oddball sense of humor before hitting you over the head with bleak and heavy duty songs that ebb with just a little too much information for comfort. Imagine what it's like for him to utter a line like "I gave you a child that you didn't want and that's all I have to give," in front of hundreds of people.

On the CD these songs are impenetrable. Live the warped melodies and lazy electric guitars swayed with an energy and personality that felt almost improvised as the group fed off of the room. And to point out just one song as the highlight of the performance doesn’t capture the beauty of Oldham’s live approach. Much in the same way Kraut rock bands like Can, Faust and Neu would draw out moments in rhythm to create an atmosphere, Oldham and Sweeney’s slow and winding voice and guitar structures stretch out with a sense of beautiful and dilapidated Americana. As a lyricist, Oldham is one of the best, but his tales of love, life, God and opportunity gone sour are truly propelled by the live instrumental arrangements that usurp the vocal melodies heard throughout his records.

Chemistry oozes between Oldham and Sweeney as they cross axes, creating an unbreakable bond. Oldham’s painted exterior juxtaposed with Sweeney’s good ‘ol boy attire speaks volumes of the precise harmony they offer one another. Seeing them on-stage, at such a choice time in their careers is like a glimpse at Nick Cave and Mick Harvey as they sank into their brotherly roles while transitioning from the Birthday Party to the Bad Seeds. Both are creatures of true personality over simple posturing and pretense. Oldham’s eccentricities are checked and balanced by Sweeney’s earnestness, and vise versa. Together their expression of an inner conception of rustic beauty, tragedy and charm is timeless. -- Chad Radford.