I was uniquely primed for Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, aka Will Oldham, who performed at Minglewood Hall on Tuesday night.
Back in the early 1990s, when he was performing under the Palace Bros. moniker, I booked Oldham's first and second Memphis appearances at Barristers. At one of those shows, he angrily kicked his monitor off the stage. At another, he refused to speak to me directly and instead insisted on whispering to his Mardi-Gras-mask-clad merch girl, who would then relay his questions to me, and my answers to him, all while we were standing about 2 feet apart. Not much later, I ran into Oldham again during a session at Easley-McCain Recording Studio, when he asked me (directly, this time) for directions to Junior Kimbrough's juke joint, then in full swing. The next night, of course, I ran into him at Junior's Place, and he snubbed me once again.
Okay, he was an asshole. But I still enjoyed his music. I didn't go out of my way to see Oldham play locally, but I did enjoy the epic-length profile of him that recently appeared in the New Yorker. And so, when I offered to host friends-of-friends-of-friends Bachelorette, the New Zealand-based pop band that opened the MInglewood Hall show, and got free tickets, I decided to go.
There wasn't a huge crowd, but it was a decent turn-out for Memphis on a summer weeknight, and three-fourths of the audience got out of their chairs and congregated in front of the stage when Oldham, fiddler Cheyenne Mize, guitarist Emmett Kelly, bassist Josh Abrams, an unnamed percussionist, and drummer Jim White of the Dirty 3 began to play.
As I expected, the band sounded fantastic, beyond Garrison Keillor's wildest Prairie Home Companion dreams. Maybe I was just jealous, but Oldham was gregarious with his fans to the point of the bizarre — he cracked jokes about buying a home with a swimming pool in Memphis, and discussed the pros and cons of scrotum shaving with one audience member. He performed a unique cover of Syl Johnson's "Together Forever," off the phenomenal 1970 album Is It Because I'm Black. He toyed with us, announcing that he was playing "futuristic jams" from the year 2028, and played, and played, and played, finally finishing a little bit after midnight.
The weirdest part of the night? From my perch facing stage right, Oldham looked like a bit like the baby-faced Spencer Pratt after a few days in the Costa Rican jungle. But once I moved front-and-center, I saw a resemblance to John Wayne Gacy. Call me cruel, but dripping black eyeliner combined with an Appalachian-inspired beard just isn't a pretty sight...