Bonnie Prince Billy, Hackney Empire (25 Jan 2012)

Bonnie Birthday

Over the years BPB and I have been through a lot together. I’ve introduced good friends to Billy, some understand him, some don’t. Those that don’t are no longer good friends of mine.

Tonight’s a special night for lots of reasons: it’s Burns night, it’s my birthday, but more importantly Bonnie Prince Billy is playing the Hackney Empire. To be honest for all my Scottish roots I often struggle with Rabbie Burns. I prefer the Bonnie Prince Billy school of poetry. They both write of, amongst other things, blazing love, confusion, man’s wit, and questions about the meaning of it all. They both have an earthy approach to life and love, but Billy has great folk/country music and on his side.

A warm glow fills the beautiful Empire as BPB and his fellow musicians take to the stage. An incongruous grand piano on the otherwise sparse stage hints that this will indeed be a special night. The whole audience seems totally captivated by, let’s face it, this man who has pioneered the ‘Deliverance Chic’ look. Which, judging by tonight’s audience, has become widely imitated.

The remarkable thing about every BPB gig that I’ve ever seen is that they are never in anyway alike. Never. Ever. He can take any song from his (vast) back catalogue and transform the melody and arrangement to almost create another song. Tonight proves no exception with the first half dozen numbers just seeming to fly past. It also seems that BPB is in talk-mode this evening, and for someone who’s music can be described as bleak, this is a rare thing. He regales us with innuendos of recent drug (ab)use in Amsterdam, how Capricorns (there are 3 in the band) are better than Aquarians (Billy and I will just have to disagree on this), and a critical overview of the American and English usage of Crap/Piss v Poo/Wee (you had to be there).

Tonight the Bonnie Prince shares the stage with Emmett Kelly on guitar, Ben Boye on piano, and Angel Olsen providing the….well, erm voice of an angel. All of these contribute to the latest BPB record ‘Wolfroy Goes To Town’, an album which gives hints to me that Billy is mellowing very slightly.

The set consisted of a fine mix of some things old, an upbeat version of ‘I See A Darkness’. Some things new, including the brilliant ‘No Match’ and ‘Quail and Dumplings’, and quite a few things blue. This is BPB at his finest, with a loving audience in the palm of his hand. From his eccentric dancing to his amazing vocal style BPB leads where others will follow. There is a real genius at work on this special night.

Rob White

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