As a form of musical expression, the solo performer with acoustic guitar is a pretty well-worn one. I mean, it started out great. Pioneers of the form such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bukka White and John Fahey still hold up today as vital and creative, but somewhere along the way it mutated to Jason Mraz and Ed Sheeran. Luckily, the art form is not lost to the sands of time but still powerfully vibrant in the right hands (and fingers). Tonight would see Drag City Records labelmates Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) and Ben Chasny (aka Six Organs Of Admittance) team up to show two completely different sides of the same dazzling, brilliant coin.
Even if you are familiar with the prodigious body of work that Oldham’s crafted over the last twenty five years, he’s always re-inventing himself, even though the basics aren’t really changing all that much. He’s gone through various band ensembles, celebrated the Everly Brothers songs with Dawn McCarthy, done his spin on rough-hewn Appalachia and burnished some of those songs via a bright modern Nashville makeover. It had been nine years Oldham made it to town, and this time he came with just an un-mic’d guitar and his voice. Striding out on stage, he stopped a foot or two from the sole microphone, and with his guitar grabbed by the neck and held away from his body, he proceeded to sing an incredibly moving a capella version of the traditional song “The Banks Of Red Roses.” No artifice, no unnecessary decoration, just pure expression of being human. We were in for that sort of evening.
Oldham was in a talkative mood, and his stream of consciousness banter crisscrossed from wonderful and terrible mother issues, comparing a song’s deep impenetrableness to a prostate gland, and chigger bites. Not your average singer-songwriter content, by a longshot, but let’s be honest: if any more VH1 Storyteller episodes are made, he’s definitely the number one candidate. Keeping in with the freewheeling aspect of tonight’s performance, he woodshedded a brand new song “I Have Made A Place” and called to the stage his merch guy as well as a longtime friend Alex and they did a really sweet version of “Cycles,” a Gayle Caldwell cover from his 2007 EP that also contained covers of Bjork, Roky Erickson, Phil Ochs and R Kelly. There’s no one quite like Will, and I hope it’s not another near decade until he touches down in Boston again.
Another Drag City artist opened the show, and like Oldham was only armed with his voice and a guitar. Oh, and a tuner clamped to the headstock. Ben Chasny (aka Six Organs Of Admittance) owned up to his partial humiliation of attaching this device to his instrument and likened it to wearing pajamas to the supermarket. His particular brand of guitar playing can range from deep meditative ragas, to the full-on psychedelic ragers as heard with the more aggressive Six Organs tracks or with Comets On Fire. Tonight’s performance would be more sedate, but equally transfixing. Oldham later recalled an evening years ago in Louisville, a house party where people were scattered both inside and outside and in the kitchen Chasny played to a dozen or two people. Oldham’s comments were about the power and beauty of music, and how that performance really made an impression on him. Tonight’s show wasn’t nearly as intimate a setting as a kitchen, but the directness was entirely there. Whether it was unlikely and revealing covers of Coil or Faust, or originals from Chasny’s fertile muse, the magic was present. Certainly one of the best shows of the year.
More photos of both performers can be seen here:
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