Music review of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy at Rams Head

In his element: Bonnie
In his element: Bonnie "Prince" Billy (right, with the Cairo Gang's Danny Kiely) during his set at Rams Head. (Josh Sisk)
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By Aaron Leitko
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It's not that Will Oldham is trying to be weird; it's just his nature.

Sunday night at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, the Louisville-bred songwriter, who performs under the stage name Bonnie "Prince" Billy, appeared barefoot, his eyes lined with mascara, a giant paintbrush mustache squatting on his upper lip. His features seemed exaggerated, antique and out of proportion -- a glam-rocker captured via daguerreotype.

Behind him, a five-piece band played soft, lilting, Americana. It was pretty far out.

Oldham got his start in the early '90s, recording dark, willfully primitive folk songs and touring underground rock clubs under the name Palace Music. During the past decade, however, he's edged impressively close to the mainstream. His song "I See a Darkness" was recorded by Johnny Cash; he appeared in a music video for Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; and he collaborated with Icelandic pop-star Björk on her soundtrack for the film "Drawing Restraint 9."

His music has softened up significantly -- the lyrics are still given to abstract literary flare, but Oldham has developed an ear for '70s-style soft rock and R&B-influenced chord changes. He's also become a better singer -- capable of swinging from gruff roadhouse proclamations to a willowy but distinctive high range. His records are arty, but not off-limits to your average James Taylor fan.

His backing band -- which included similar-minded duo Cairo Gang and Philadelphia-based songwriter Meg Baird -- ducked from gloomy Southern Gothic tones to ear-rattling crescendos, fleshing out songs drawn from his recent record, "The Wonder Show of the World," with grown-up rock arrangements.

But Oldham's outsider origins have left an imprint.

At 39, he has Jimmy Buffett's looks but Glenn Danzig's stage moves. He leapt up and down and wagged his tongue. He puffed his chest and clutched at the air like a high school senior trying to vogue his way through Hamlet's soliloquy.

As if to echo these dramatic poses, the second encore closed with a country-fried cover of R. Kelly's 2001 single "The World's Greatest." Oldham wants to write, perform and participate in popular music. He can't help it if he's freaky.

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