Live: Bonnie "Prince" Billy at Radio-Active Records, May 30

Bonnie "Prince" Billy 

Radio-Active Records, Fort Lauderdale
Monday, May 30, 2011

We are not exaggerating when we say you could literally hear a pin drop when we arrived at Radio-Active Records shortly after 7 p.m. last night. That was just in time to catch a clean-shaven Will Oldham -- AKA Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- belting out a hearty three-part chorus with his tour mates Emmett Kelly -- AKA the Cairo Gang -- and Angel Olsen.

Radio-Active was certainly more like a library than a record store this night. We tiptoed our way to the back of the shop as indie folk star Oldham completed "The Sounds Are Always Begging" (off his latest full length, recorded in collaboration with Kelly, The Wonder Show of the World) with the most delicate timbre.

Performing strictly acoustic without the aid of microphones, Oldham's autumnal voice had the crowd transfixed. This was the most engaged, least distracted, and easily the quietest crowd we have ever witnessed at Radio-Active. Considering that crowd's size -- people packed like sardines in the vinyl stacks and almost lined up out the door -- it was no small feat on Oldham's part.

Oldham's newest cohort, Angel Olsen, took a turn in the driver's seat on "Come Down Here," an exquisite cover of British underground singer/songwriter Kevin Coyne's standout track from his seminal 1979 record, Babble. Performing with a slight yodel at the end of every verse, Olsen made the song her own with a haunting ethereal cadence. Olsen boasts aching, timeless pipes that sound like they were lifted somewhere between Tin Pan Alley and Nina Simone, and Oldham has made an excellent choice teaming up with this splendid chanteuse.

All three joined in unison for a stripped-down version of one of Oldham's more gaudy numbers, "The Seedling." Even without the use of amps, the trio's warm harmonies filled the packed house perfectly well. All the while, Oldham walked around his side of the stage in a casual manner and would do these charismatic hand gestures as he delivered the next verse.

A few numbers in, Oldham and company opened up the floor for suggestions. Requests came from all directions, "Holly Home," "Death to Everyone," The World's Greatest" (an R. Kelly cover that Oldham's been known to perform live), and "West Palm Beach." After about three minutes of chaos, Oldham turned to Kelly and asked, "Did you hear anything good out there?" The three-piece settled on 2001's "Just to See My Holly Home."

Kelly began this one with the gentlest of guitar strums as Oldham sung the endearing chorus. About halfway through this song, the audience began to break its silence and sang along, albeit rather modestly so: "Just to see my Holly home/We will live just us alone/Safely in our holly home."

Wearing shades, a baseball cap, and a guayabera shirt, Oldham looked every bit the part of a tourist. He duly shared with the crowd one tourist fiasco that had occurred over the course of the seven-stop Free Florida tour. Oldham told of a boat ride the group took in the Panhandle, where a boat captain with an "unflappable visage" ran the boat aground, resulting in all of them having to be rescued. 

Oldham then told the crowd that all of us will come to a point in our lives where "we can no longer do what we are born to do," before he broke into another subtle number that quieted the sizable crowd down to a coffeehouse intimacy. He then sang the verse,  "And now I have to let my captain go," in charming creaky vocals.

A foot-stomping rendition of "Ohio River Boat Song" followed as the finale. It was certainly the most Appalachian-sounding moment of the night, as Oldham ended matters with a slight country twang throughout the melody.

Despite Oldham not unveiling local favorite "West Palm Beach" -- yes, we were one of those cheering for it as a request, guilty as charged -- everyone was all smiles exiting the store. Even the most casual of Bonnie "Prince" Billy fans seemed content. Heck, everyone got his money's worth, right? 

A line of fans amassed next to the stage hoping to shake Oldham's hand, and many thank yous were expressed to Oldham for having graced us with this tour.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: Folk music really does fare better when it's unplugged. 

Overheard in the crowd: Silence. Whispers. Appreciation.

Random detail: The Prince and his crew have one more stop on their Florida tour, tonight at Miami's Sweat Records.

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Alex Rendon