Concert Review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Pinetop Seven (August 13, 2001, Lincoln, NE)

I never would’ve known about this concert existed if not for chance… not that I believe in chance. I knew the Bonnie Prince and his entourage would be playing in Omaha on August 14. But while running errands on my lunchbreak, I just happened to pass a local music store and see a poster in the window. Needless to say, I was excited. But then I read the date and venue — August 13, at Lincoln’s very own Knickerbocker’s. It was too good to be true, so I looked again. And again. And then I ran back to the office and called up George in the middle of a meeting to spread the word.

Despite the fact that the show started late, and the door price was slightly higher than normal (low concert prices is one advantage of Lincoln), Michelle and I took our places at the table with George. The stage was packed, with no musicians in sight; it looked the Rapture had occurred in the middle of soundcheck. Guitars, cellos, and pedals everwhere. The show’s starting time came and went, and the place was still empty. Finally, The Pinetop Seven took the stage.

Okay, so the name was a bit of a misnomer. There were only 6 of them. But to be honest, I think I was more excited to see them than Bonnie Prince’ Billy. I’ve only heard one release from them (No Breath In The Bellows), but I was quite taken by it’s blend of country-flavored ballads and noir-ish New Orleans swing. Their set started off with a bang, a slowly building song that sounded like the theme to an old TV western; a crystal clear trumpet provided the only vocals. Their set consisted of unfamiliar material, with the exception of two covers (a smashing version of the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and a surf-tinged “Love is Blue”) and the set’s closer (“40 Watt Bulb”).

One complaint (and a common theme of the evening) was the poor sound. In the Pinetop Seven’s case, it hurt the vocals. I knew that Darren Richard was singing tales of heartbreak and woe. I just wish I could’ve heard him. The sound also hurt the cellist; half the time, she might as well have not been playing. But in spite of such complaints (again, chalk it up to the poor sound), the Pinetop Seven still managed to keep me (and that annoying girl in the back who hollered between each song) enthralled.

Up next was his royal glumness, Bonnie Prince’ Billy. Accompanied by a ragtag group of musicians (including the requisite tambourine-player/crowd stirrer), Oldham played a long, meandering set of gloomy balladry. Half the time, the songs felt like they were going to fall apart, and for about the first half of the set, it worked quite magically.

It felt less like we were in a club, and more like we were sitting on some back porch in yesteryear. The day’s harvesting was done, and we were spending the August night listening to Oldham and his ragtag group warble out one broken ballad after another. The vibe was so loose, I swear Oldham picked up some his band from the streets just before the show. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone from the audience joined in on the jug or harmonica, and I don’t think anyone would’ve minded too much.

But like I said, it worked well at first. After awhile, it rambled on a little too much, and I had to go sit down. Again, some of the blame has to be placed on the sound. Much of the time, the instruments came together in a jumbled mess, bumping into and tripping all over each other. Then again, the songs were played so loosely that I’m sure half the set consisted of stray notes and misplayed chords. I’m not sure, but I think they even started making up new songs as they went along.

Still, there’s no denying that I got the shivers as soon as Oldham started into “I See a Darkness.” I’m not surprised that Johnny Cash covered this song on American III: Solitary Man. Maybe it’s just the week/month/summer I’ve had, but words like “Did you know how much I love you/Is a hope that somehow you/Could save me from this darkness?” hit me like a ton of bricks that night. That probably explains why that album hasn’t strayed far from my CD player since Monday night.

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