Over on listuniverse.com I found a list of 10 great Bob Dylan live performances, and it prompted me to make this list of the best Bonnie "Prince" Billy live performances on youtube. Obviously there aren't as many live BPB videos on youtube as there are of Dylan, so I had a fairly small pool to work from, and the pool got even smaller when I considered sound/video quality. Nevertheless, I believe I found enough stuff to make a quality list. Feel free to comment if you know of any good Bonnie videos that I missed or if you'd like to take issue with my rankings. Enjoy!
1. Strange Form of Life, Conan O'Brien Show, September 19, 2006
A hard way to come, into a cabin, into the weather
I put this one at #1 because of the sound/video quality and the overall performance. It features Matt Sweeney on lead guitar, Jim White (of the Dirty Three) on drums, "party til you puke" Andrew WK on piano, and Paul Oldham, the Bonnie Prince's brother, on the other guitar. I believe I prefer the male backing vocals on this version to Dawn McCarthy's backing vocals on the album. Not sure.
Update: This video was available when I made the list, but now it's unavailable. Oh well, I suppose it's fitting that my #1 vid isn't available. That seems to be how things work (or don't work, as it were) with me.
2. Same Love That Made Me Laugh (Bill Withers Cover), Amersterdam, 1999
Want you think before you start rolling down, because once you start you can't make it stop
This performance captures much of what initially drew me to Oldham's music. To me, his voice doesn't just convey vulnerability and doubt, it is vulnerability and doubt. Don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily think Will Oldham is filled with doubt and vulnerability. He may or may not be. I don't know him. It has more to do with inhabiting the song a certain way. "Like a rose that's soft to touch, love has thorns that hurt so much" isn't exactly the most original line, but Oldham manages to make the emotion real even if the line is cliched. The song can be found on More Revery, a covers album by "Bonny Billy."
3. I See A Darkness, Green Man Festival, Wales, August 20, 2005
i hope that someday buddy we have peace in our lives
together or apart, alone or with our wives
and we can stop our whoring and pull the smiles inside
and light it up forever and never go to sleep
my best unbeaten brother, this is not all I see
This is a beautiful performance of the title song from I See A Darkness. After listening to it a few times, I'm tempted to move it up on my list. Like many others, I became aware of Oldham's music through Johnny Cash's cover of "I See A Darkness" on his American III album. Cash's cover is great, given added pathos by his age and, now that he's gone, the listener's knowledge of his proximity to death. But Oldham's darkness is more ambiguous, a darkness that includes not only death but existential doubt and uncertainty--the darkness that Beckett's characters both long for and attempt to escape. Which makes Oldham's appeal to friendship all the more moving.
4. Good Bye Dear Old Stepstone, Daytrotter Sessions, 2007
Goodbye dear old stepstone, goodbye to my home, god bless those I leave with a sigh
This one was recorded live at the Daytrotter studio along with three other songs. If your interested, you can go to daytrotter.com and download the songs from their archives. According to Bonnie, “Bascomb Lamar Lunsford learned this song in 1904 from Miss Lela Ammons of Robinsville, North Carolina. I learned it from Lunsford’s recording.” Oldham's straightforward, understated performance captures the spirit of the Lunsford version. I can imagine some musicians, say Will Sheff of Okkervil River (who I like, by the way), adding some affected emotion to his vocals. I think Oldham gets more emotion from the song by playing it straight. It's the difference between, say, the quiet and restrained (but emotionally powerful) final scene of Robert Bresson's Au Hazard, Balthazar and the maudlin acting in PT Anderson's Magnolia (of course, to his credit, I believe Anderson intended his characters to be self-absorbed people with artificial emotions).
5. Nomadic Revery (All Around) Copenhagen, 3-23-2007
all around, oh all around, it's kept together by moving all around
This is probably my favorite song from I See A Darkness. It's hard to say why. I suppose it's because I identify with the desperation in the song, unfortunately. I also like the idea of movement keeping things from falling apart. That's how I think of my photography at times--movement, and a way to keep things whole.
6. No Gold Digger, Cuba, mid 90's?
The horns died down and thunder cracked, as I rolled over on my back
Technically, this one probably shouldn't be included on a best of Bonnie "Prince" Billy list since the performance predates Oldham's BPB moniker. The song, "No Gold Digger," is from Arise, Therefore, by Palace Music, which came out in 1996. I'm not sure of the exact date of this performance, but I believe it was in the early/mid 90's. A few years back, Audioslave or some other group claimed to be the first to play live in Cuba, but Oldham and his crew beat them to it. Some of the Cuba recordings are on a cd by Havanarama, a band including Bob Arellano, Will Oldham, Paul Oldham, Pete Townshend, and Dave Pajo. The sound quality of this video isn't great, but it's a cool version of the song that differs quite a bit from the album version. The intercut footage of the man in a straw hat dancing around with his bottle of rum is also great.
7. Strange Form of Life, Tel Aviv, Israel, 1-31-2007
"A strange form of life, kicking through windows and rolling on yards."
If this video had better sound quality, i would have probably moved it higher on my list. This version of the song is pretty similar to the one on Conan, but I believe I prefer it to that one--it's looser, funkier...stranger. The brown suit and pink shirt are also pretty classy.
8. Beast For Thee, April 14, 2004, Orlando, FL
"I will toil for years and years, give you muscle tone and tears"
I'm putting this video above "Bed is For Sleeping" because I attented a couple of shows--one in Asheville and one in Wilmington--during this tour (the Summer in the Southeast tour). The album this song appears on, Superwolf, hadn't came out yet (it was released in Jan. of 2005), so during the shows I heard several songs, including this one, for the first time.
That summer was a tumultuous one for me. I finished up grad school in May, I was nervous about finding a job, and (most significantly) my marriage of 3+ years (8 year relationship) was falling apart. Overall, it was an extremely stressful, depressing, summer...one that I'd mostly like to forget. Attending the BPB concerts was one of few things from that summer that I don't mind remembering.
On the way home from the show in Asheville, at about 4 in the morning, a black bear lumbered out from the fog and stood in front of my car for a good 10 minutes. Although I don't usually give much credence to signs, I kind of felt like that moment had some overarching significance. I half expected the bear to speak to me, to give me some advice that would straighten out all my troubles, but he (or she) just stared dumbly at my the hood of my vw, then shuffled back into the thick fog and underbrush. Maybe that was the message. In any case, the moment is forever etched in my mind as part of the overall experience of my first BPB concert.
9. Bed is for Sleeping, March 2007 Seville, Spain
"Where are you going, and why are you leaving? I'm left on this walkway, to swallow my grieving."
Not much to say about this one. Another nice performance. It's probably better than the video above, but lacks the personal connections.
10. Love Hurts (with Dawn McCarthy), 11-5-2006, Portland, OR
I'm young, I know, but even so
This is a pretty straightforward cover, similar to the Gram Parsons/Emylou Harris version. I've heard versions of this song by the everly brothers, roy orbison, gram parsons, and nazareth, but I wasn't sure who wrote it, so i looked it up on wikipedia. Turns out it was Boudreaux Bryant. I've alwasy liked this song. It makes me feel nostalgia for those tumultuous, but in many ways wonderful, adolescent years (and probably nostalgia for many things that didn't happen). I also associate it with Dazed and Confused, one of the best movies about teens.