The Bonnie "Prince" Billy show at MadCity Music Exchange (Friday, Aug. 11, 7 p.m.) won't be the first time storeowner Dave Benton has hosted a national artist. But this show might be his best attended.
"I've heard from customers that they are excited about the show," says Benton. "I have a feeling there are some people who are following him around on this tour, so we could have quite a large crowd."
There is some irony to the idea of a fan cult following the Bonnie "Prince" (a.k.a. Will Oldham). For much of his career, he has tried to drive a wedge between public interest in his music and public interest in him.
"I do not want a personal relationship with my fans," Oldham told the Observer Magazine in 2002. "Or to do anything that encourages them to think they have one with me. They can have a personal relationship with my songs. That's fine, but they don't know me."
Oldham, 35, who was born in Louisville and attended Brown University, has resisted a single stage identity. He has recorded under many names, including Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. A recent press release from his record label spells his pseudonym "Bonny" as frequently as "Bonnie."
He has fended off musical identification with the American South, listing many other places that he's called home.
At times, the intensity with which Oldham pursues multiple identities seems driven by his theatrical urge. He appeared in the 1987 John Sayles film Matewan, about a 1921 coal miners' strike in West Virginia. He has a major role in The Guatemalan Handshake, which premiered at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival.
In a 2003 tour diary, he referred to himself using the plural pronouns "we" and "us" when responding to his fans' questions. One fan queried, "Has the beard drawn more women or repelled them?"
"We are oblivious to its effect," replied Oldham.
Oldham's public persona has evolved into that of an artist intent on avoiding a public persona. The tension inherent in that contradiction informs his brand of delicate, passionate songwriting. His record label, Drag City, plays up Bonnie's identity as "a mystical, enigmatic figure."
Interest in Oldham and the Bonnie "Prince" will spike in September with the release of his new album, The Letting Go. The first single has already been pre-distributed as the title track of his recent Cursed Sleep EP.
The song is an expansive blend of orchestral folk rock. The strings are reminiscent of the "Jacksonville" track from Sufjan Stevens' Illinois. But the rest of the song evokes the open-highway loneliness of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Breaking the Girl."
Strings are at the forefront of The Letting Go. They begin the album's opening song, "Love Comes to Me," which wrestles with the irrationality of stumbling across love amid the forces of death and emptiness. The restrained drums and guitar steadily express life's standard course; the swelling strings seem to symbolize a divergent opening to the possibility of love.
The second track, "Strange Form of Life," changes gears, demonstrating that the use of strings won't devolve into a formula throughout the disc. A rising electric guitar line allows this song to spread its wings and take flight. The impact is equally disarming.
Accompanying Bonnie on vocals throughout The Letting Go is Dawn McCarthy of the Oakland band Faun Fables. Will's brother, Paul Oldham, accompanies on bass.
The album is as compelling as any set of indie-folk you'll hear this year. It is sure to feed assertions that Oldham is one of America's best and most original songwriters right now "- an idea widely noted in the music press after Johnny Cash covered Oldham's "I See a Darkness" on his American III album.
Oldham's appearance at MadCity Music Exchange is one of 11 free shows he is staging at independent record stores. He'll be performing from a wooden stage that Benton says is a holdover display from the flower store that vacated the retail space 17 years ago. Other national artists that have appeared at MadCity include Camper Van Beethoven, Alejandro Escoveda and Mason Jennings.
"Will will be performing by himself," Benton says. "I think Drag City picked us for this, frankly, because we sell a fair amount of CDs to his fans."