This is the third official Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy live album to be released on vinyl, fourth if you include the CD-only Wilding In The West from 2008. I found Summer In The Southeast virtually unlistenable, Is It The Sea? was nice, though with some drawbacks, but this one I think is the easiest to enjoy, and the most fun. Oldham and Co. sound like they’re having an ebullient romp through the Oldham catalogue and the versions here stay fairly true to form. This is the most authentic country sound Oldham’s come up with yet. We’ve got fiddles and mandolins, banjos and even a double bass plus drums and guitar. One more thing worth noting about this album is that it includes a track from nearly every Palace or BPB album as far back as 1993.
Ohio River Boat Song… was originally a 7” single. Just to recap, in this song, the Bonnie narrator realizes his lovely Catarina is cheating on him. On his way home, across the Ohio river he laments having to share her beauty but knows he’s too smitten to end the relationship himself. Maybe he’s thinking of throwing himself off the boat. I love the opening of this here, a fast strumming guitar and a melody picked out, sounding very much like a Flying Nun band from the eighties. Then the song proper starts up, played straight, but with great sound, fiddles and banjos, and Oldham’s voice in very fine fettle. The melody is present and correct, in all its glorious Scottish folk balladry. It’s pure country hokum, but perfect way to open, with a yodeled “hooo” tacked on the end. It also appears on Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004 and was included on the first Lost Blues compilation.
May It Always Be… is the opening track from Ease Down The Road, 2001, a simple enough love song in which the narrator admits his weakness and his need for his partner to be strong. He hopes their love will “always be.” Oldham continues with yodels, “yip, yip,” then we get some harder guitar chords before the jaunty rhythm kicks into gear, keeping the upbeat country feel from “Ohio River Boat” going strong. This is so much stronger, possibly even better than the softer original. “If you love me and I am weak / Then weaker you must love me more / To reinforce what’s also strong …” Fiddle solo. This is fantastic. Sound quality is great. Oldham’s singing is infinitely better in this context than the rock one of Summer In The Southeast where this song also appears. This is barnyard stompin’ funky.
Hemlocks And Primroses… is a cover, written by Landon Messer and Ralph Stanley. Stanley was a banjo player from Virgina who had a band called The Clinch Mountain Boys with whom he performed this song. Messer seems to be more of a country music composer. The song first appears on Stanley’s 1976 album Old Home Place. It’s a pretty cool song, I like it, and I like the way Stanley’s version sounds so much like early Bob Dylan. This is much better country blues than those rubbishy songs Oldham performed with Susanna on their “Forever And Ever” seven inch. It’s a lament for a lost love. In the song the narrator falls asleep by a frosty stream “on a bed of hemlocks and primroses” and dreams of “a pretty fair maiden” whose “dress was bound with hemlocks and primroses.” When he wakes up he realizes that the maiden was a symbol for the woman he’s lost, and sits sadly nursing his woes, thinking how close he’d come to heaven. Primroses appear in Hamlet as representing the leisure life, flowers that gild the easy path through life. Hemlock on the other hand is a poisonous plant. Thus, this bed he’s sleeping on is like a black cloud with a false silver lining. Oldham plays it straight, Cheyenne Mize joins him on the chorus, some other bloke backs up on the chorus line. It’s warm, tuneful, full of love. Oldham has also perfected his country yodels, his “yees” and “yips” and “hoos” will surely bring a smile to your face.
The Glory Goes/Wolf Among Wolves… this is a kind of two-song medley; the latter is from Master And Everyone, the former from Lie Down In The Light. As noted in my review of Lie Down, “The Glory Goes” is something of a meta-song about singing, about song, which Oldham acknowledges in his book WO on BPB. It’s a song that celebrates “those who do not seek” glory, those who just want to party all night long, those who are able to sing their way in and out of tight spots, and it acknowledges, rightly so, this talent always comes from … mum. This version is faster, melodic, with some great see-sawing rhythm from the fiddler. Mize sings along with Oldham, they sound great together. This is an amazing song, period. I loved it on Lie Down In The Light, and it has to be said, this live version is possibly even better. “And the dancing goes on in the kitchen until dawn / To the song that has no end.” The song winds down to a lone fiddle figure, double bass walking alongside, and “Wolf Among Wolves” begins, a song that keeps reappearing on Oldham’s live albums, another song about being true to yourself, being true to your own way, even if, ahem, that way is the way of the wolf, and not quite ‘human,’ a sentiment repeated over and over by Oldham and one you can’t help admiring. This represents the first major dynamic change in the concert, a breather, quiet, melancholy, some of those quickly rubbed fret sounds, and Oldham singing it beautifully. And then we get the highlight of the whole concert: six grown men howling, yipping, barking, ruffing and growling like wolves. Haha. “Well, she craves a hole that she can go in / Some kind of sheltered cave that I have never seen / Not in my life and not even in my dreams.” This is really nice. Other (lesser) live versions can be heard live on Summer In The Southeast, 2005 and Is It The Sea? 2008.
We All, Us Three, Will Ride… is from Viva Last Blues, 1995, and was re-recorded for a one-off 7” single in 2002. It’s one of those story songs, told by a female narrator, lying in bed, apparently ill or with broken legs or something, waiting for her man to drop by, pick her up, give her a child and they’ll ride off into the sunset. In fact, he seems to be present now, holding her hand, while the bleak situation and imagery of the final lines, “A lover’s laugh, A bleeding calf / A dog out in the harbour,” possibly hint at a hopeless reality, I think. It takes a lot of reading between the lines to get to that point. They keep the mood low, devoted, deferential, just guitar, and Mize and Oldham’s voice swerving in and out of each other’s lines. “Will come, will come, o he will come and make me have a baby / Then I foresee, we all, us three, will ride and all together.” It’s sad stuff, a song of hope imbued with the listener’s dramatic irony of knowing that hope is being forestalled. Song kept simple. “We’re gonna take a little break now,” yells Oldham in what surely has to be a semi-ironic hokey cow-poke accent. Even if not, it sounds great anyway.
Easy Does it… is the opening track from Lie Down In The Light. I really dig the melody of this song, its jolly catchy chorus. Another song about songs, or songwriting being like work, but work that’s gotta be done, but not overdone, no need to overwork it, easy does it now, balance work with the things that you enjoy the most, like your mum and dad, your girlfriend and a few things along the beach. Some band banter before the song starts, and we’re right back in to the stomp-a-thon vibe of most of Side One. This comes close to sounding a little too much like the album version except for the looseness of the musicians, the little flashes of improvisation you hear in the fiddle parts. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, just how great Oldham’s voice sounds on this recording. He’s mixed just right, none of this shouting, none of that flattening the tune, no arty attempts to change song dynamics into something that doesn’t really suit. What kind of voice is it? It’s a high wiry one, always on the edge of a falsetto, sharp and cowpokey and funny and real. Great catchy number. This is bearded Oldham, his beard was about as big as his head at this stage, appearing in his wife-beater-baseball cap shlock.
Lay And Love… is from 2006’s The Letting Go and was also released as a 12” single. It’s a sex and love song, one that includes the bad as well as the good, but the Oldham narrator will take the whole package thank you, the bad with the good, the whole shebang. Whatever you do, after sex, “it makes me lay here and love you.” This is very quiet, just a low humming bass, faint notes from the background, a moody atmosphere, and Mize and Oldham singing together. Quite different to the original but it works, the melody is here, somber, poignant, honest. Loving it. When Mize reaches her high notes, “I have a feeling,” it’s hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck magic. I even dig the applause on these songs. It sounds like an audience of about twenty.
Rider… is a rarity, one of the few songs from Joya to be heard away from home. The song is about sexual activity, “my eyes bugged out and I’m down on the couch / Lady’s got a box pressed into my face.” She’s wearing only a belt of beads. He can’t see anything, and he’s high as a kite, in the heavens seeing stars, clouds, nebulae, “in erotic poises.” It doesn’t seem to end so well though: “Cold in space and fingers long / Between the ears a synapse is wrong / Clicked apart and’s all it can be / The last the last you’ll see of the leaves.” The original was short, and short on melody too, completely unmemorable in fact. This is also subdued, a few banjo notes, a tinny guitar sound, whining fiddle, then the bass joins, adds a big bottom to the song, and even the melody seems infinitely stronger, not that the original version seemed to even carry a melody. That said, this still comes across as an odd little number, not quite sure of where it’s going, what its point is. Hard to even pinpoint a specific mood to the song, it sort of ambles.
Rambling Fever… is a Merle Haggard cover, from his 1977 album Ramblin’ Fever. Rambling, one of early Dylan’s favourite words, is all about not being tied to any one thing, ergo: “My hat don’t hang on the same nail too long / My ears can’t stand to hear the same old song.” It’s interesting how Oldham often chooses songs for his seven inch singles and live albums via some kind of significant linguistic connections. After just singing about oral sex on a couch in the previous song, here we get the G-rated version: “There’s times I’d like to bed down on a sofa / And let some pretty lady rub my back.” Of course, ramblers like Merle and Bonnie ain’t gonna “let no woman tie [them] down,” and they’re off rambling again, because they’ve got “ramblin’ fever” in their soul. Being a Haggard song, this is pure country romp, with a bluesy feel, and familiar kind of tune. Nice guitar solo among the choruses towards the end.
You Want That Picture… is from Lie Down In The Light. And so, true to a rambler’s spirit you’re gonna break a few hearts if you don’t plan to stick around after making love on the sofa. In this song, Mize singing Webber’s part from the album, tells us that she knows her ex-lover pictures her crying, upset, after he’s dumped her, and she admits this is true but realizes after looking at the night sky, she’ll be all right. He too knows that her picture of him is as a cold heartless bastard, and he can live with that, for he too, knows from the night sky that “everything will be all right,” and that “everything comes down to this,” meaning there’s nothing else beyond this life. An “it’s not worth crying over spilt milk” song. This is crisply played, clear as the night sky both characters end up staring into. Mize takes up the female section, she sounds great here, much better than the recordings on Among The Gold. There’s a major dynamic shift in the middle of the song between chorus and verse, which slowly picks up pace as the song moves back into the second verse. Mize asks him, “Did you cry?” The music all drops away for Oldham’s answer, again, that night sky feel, before the song picks back up into the final chorus, the two voices soaring together.
Idle Hands Are The Devils Playthings… going all the way back to 1993, this is the opening track from the first Palace album, There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You. The title pretty much sums up the song’s sentiment. Have nothing better to do than, say, write endless reviews of the same old songs? You’ll end up “deep down” with the “eternal screamers” and the “unsainted sinners.” “It happens now,” sings Oldham as his hands strum a guitar. “It happens now,” writes Alan Bumstead as his hands strike a keyboard. O the irony. This begins a cappella, amidst an audience handclapping the rhythm, before the song launches a total country assault, faster than the original, a lively buoyant sense of cheer, celebrating those idle hands. It’s short, over. Lots of coos and yee-has from the crowd.
It just occurred to me that the name Funtown Comedown pretty much sums up the sound of this live document perfectly. Songs, often with miserable sentiments, played with great cheer. Everyone sounds like they’re having fun here and perhaps that’s why I rate it as Oldham’s best live album.