Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & Susanna at the Hackney Empire
Stars come out at night. Never has this been more apt, as the stage and ceiling of the Hackney Empire are coated with a glittering galaxy for the London return of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Despite the stunning reviews for his latest, nigh on twentieth album Wolfroy Goes To Town, this is no plugging tour. One of only three dates, Bonnie Billy, or Will Oldham to his mum, performs as part of a four-piece selecting songs from his expansive back catalogue just an hour prior to hitting the stage. Only a few tracks tonight will be from this recent release.
While the band are backstage sorting the set list, Norwegian singer, composer and musician Susanna Wallumrod keeps a sparsely populated Empire entertained. Best known as half of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, Wallumrod’s lickle girl vocals feel a bit lost in this cavernous space. The ethereal electronics of Morten Qvenild – usually providing her Magical Orchestra – are sorely missed. In his place, a lacklustre guitarist picks and slides.
Despite a promising debut solo album, Susanna seems intent on treading the tired path of a covers artist, albeit one who puts an interesting spin on some of her left field choices. When this once seemed fresh with new spins put on songs like Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ or Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, today they feel tired.
A painful ‘Billie Jean’ rubber-stamped this point. The shimmering, starry backdrop reminiscent of Michael’s Motown 25th anniversary jacket did not help. It’s best to stick to less well-known covers. Opening with Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ had set a (mono) tone, which did not vary for the rest of her set, not even during Oldham’s own ‘Joy And Jubilee’. It’s time for the real deal.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy arrives, tunes a guitar that then rapidly dispenses with it. Where a cacophonous, disinterested drone from the bar drowned out the wistful Susanna, we can now hear a pin drop. He begins to sing. Rooted in a folk and country tradition, Oldham’s best performances are often solo. The fragility of his darkest recordings drowned out by drums and electric guitars when live, he is best appreciated alone. A happy medium has been found tonight. No snares, no axes plugged in. Instead we have Ben Boye on piano, harmonium and auto harp; Emmett Kelly on guitar and vocals; and the tiny Angel Olsen signing alongside Oldham.
At times Kelly’s mic level seems a touch too high as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy competes in the wailing stakes but it is the quieter moments most of us have come for. Oldies such as ‘Pushkin’ suit this stripped-down four-piece just fine. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s brothers – with whom he founded his first band Palace Songs – are not missed. Though, a treasure such as ‘I See Darkness’ suffered from its heightened pace, many gems, such as ‘Master And Everyone’, were to be cherished.
It was not until later in the concert that we heard offerings from the latest album. The tiny frame of Olsen holds an incredible voice. This was at its finest on Wolfroy’s ‘Quail And Dumplings’.
It is no secret Oldham is not the capital’s biggest fan and can be a bit grumpy when in town. Tonight was an exception. Comically riffing with the audience high in the balcony with tales of Dutch drug running gone wrong in the Channel tunnel, on stage horoscope convergence and the need to shoot off to Scotland to catch the tale end of Burns Night, the singer was in fine form.
Continuing with beautiful renditions of treasures such as ‘No Match’ and the melancholic ‘You Want That Picture’, it was a shame such a special concert had to end so soon. With a remarkable large back catalogue, surely it is time for Oldham to play full-length showcases split with an interval and dispense with the support band.
Left with an empty stage and stars still glistening on the draped backdrop and high up above, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy shuffles backwards into the wings, shambolically juggling water bottle and lyric sheets with guitar still plugged in. He disappears. We see darkness. The star that shone brightest had just gone out.