The King is Dead. Long live the Prince - Review : Bonnie Prince Billy in Cork Opera House, Wednesday 1st February
She may have been Magical Orchestra-less but Susanna Karolina Wallumrød warmed up the crowd better than a calor gas fire on a bitterly cold night in Cork. Solo, seated at a grand piano, the striking Norwegian introduced herself to the auditorium with originals such as opener 'For You' (from Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos, her first solo record) and the vulnerable 'Sweet Devil' from 2004's List of Lights and Buoys.
Previous to last night my knowledge of Susanna's work was limited to her spectral take on Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' so an extremely welcome rendition of AC/DC's 'It’s A Long Way To The Top' should not have been too unexpected. Wallumrød soon settled into herself following the Ozzie legends hit up with 'Joy And Jubilee' borrowed from the songbook of the main event himself. As if testing the age old saying "Speak of the devil and he shall appear" out ambles the bonnie "Prince" himself accompanied by Emmet Kelly and Angel Olsen to provide harmonies for 'Home Recording' another original from Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos. A delighted Wallumrød thanks her "great backing singers" before ending with Thin Lizzy's 'Jailbreak' which could have been cheesey but Susanna pulled it off in a similar vein to the rest of her set - with a touch of sheer class.
The last time Bonnie "Prince" Billy visited Cork (at least publicly) he performed in a field to a garrulous crowd, backdropped by a pulsating beat overflowing from an adjacent tent. Not the most ideal conditions and, although by no means a bad gig (it was even quite good), you got the impression it was a case of let's just get this over with and go home. Oldham's vast collection of songs never struck me as festival-friendly - quite the opposite in fact, more suited to small, intimate little hideaways - and, after finally managing to pick my jaw up off the floor of the Cork Opera House, I can now rubber stamp that as the gospel truth.
With over 15 studio albums recorded in various guises to call from, BPB's setlists can be a bit of a lottery (a wonderful, glorious, Marty Whelan-less version of the lotto) and it was 'With Cornstalks or Among Them''s number that popped out first. Flanked by Angel Olsen and Emmet Kelly (a Cairo Gang member and long-term Bonnie "Prince" collaborator), Oldham gave the Wonder Show of the World ballad exactly what he would give every other song he would perform that night: absolutely everything.
'You Can't Hurt Me Now' from 2009's Drag City release Beware was up next and it was plain to see that Olsen is not "just a backing singer", injecting every number with a shudder of her magnificent Patsy Cline-esque voice that could break a heart at a thousand paces. The time-line in the discography was then shifted significantly , going back nearly two decades to 'Ohio River Boat Song', with the country dial on the Palace Brothers 1993 debut single raised to 10 before Olsen again face-smacked the audience with her abilities, taking a more prominent role on 'You Want That Picture'.
'Wolf Among Wolves' from the masterpiece Master And Everyone went a similar route taken with 'Ohio River Boat Song', slightly rearranged with an increased tempo to the original recording and filled out with three delicious vocals complete with howling from the master. For everyone. Ahem.
"Why can't I be loved as what I am
A Wolf among wolves and not as a man."
The emphasis remained on more recent material which goes to show the wiley songscribe shows no signs of slowing down his prolific output; The dark, tribal pulse of Kelly's guitar on 'New Whaling', the ominous forewarning of 'Cows', the respectfully pleading 'Black Captain' (all Wolfroy Goes To Town) , the tantalising three-way vocal on 'Troublesome Houses' (Wonder Show..), every now and then slipping back to the more mature compositions such as the exquisite 'After I Made Love to You' (Ease Down The Road) and a surprisingly upbeat version of 'I See A Darkness', dedicated to Steve one of only two photographers Oldham has ever felt comfortable with - the other being his late father - who has been omnipresent in the front row throughout the night. A Leonard Cohen cover ('A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes') featuring some gorgeous piano from Ben Boye - who had been content to remain in the shadows for the majority of the evening - appeared as if from nowhere followed by another Wolfroy... track ('We Are Unhappy'), 'Beast for Thee' from Superwolf (recorded with Matt Sweeney) and 'So Everyone' from 2008's Lie Down In The Light.
For the second cover of the night - and the "last" of the official set - Susanna returned to the stage to participate in a routine Johnny and June would have been proud of, trading verses with technical precision and comical facial expressions during John Prine's 'In Spite of Ourselves'.
"She don't like her eggs all runny
She thinks crossin' her legs is funny
She looks down her nose at money
She gets it on like the Easter Bunny
She's my baby I'm her honey
I'm never gonna let her go
He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays
I caught him once and he was sniffin' my undies
He ain't too sharp but he gets things done
Drinks his beer like it's oxygen
He's my baby And I'm his honey
Never gonna let him go"
The standard disappearing act was short before the four returned to round off the night with an angelic version of 'New Partner', another Wonder Show... tune in 'Where Wind Blows' and the third cover and final song of the night, 'Pack Up Your Sorrows', eventually performed unplugged after Oldham initially struggled with detaching the pickup with Olsen, Kelly and himself each singing a solo verse before a rousing chorus erupted into a standing ovation.
With the brilliance of Wolfroy.. apparent last year and a live show that can rival anyone's, nearly 20 years into his recording career, it would be difficult to argue against the man being at the peak of his powers. Like I said, jaw-dropping. Gig of the year (albeit a very young one)
*Let me know if I have omitted anything