in performance: bonnie “prince” billy

bonnie "prince" billy (will oldham)

bonnie "prince" billy (will oldham)

At one point during last night’s Tsuga Art & Music benefit at Old Tarr Distillery, the sound was malfunctioning so severely that headliner Bonnie “Prince” Billy – aka, Louisville indie folk/pop stylist Will Oldham – threw himself on the stage floor and sang into a microphone mounted in front of a guitar amplifier. Why? Because it was one of the only mics that worked.

Don’t get me wrong here. Old Tarr was nicely converted last night into a half gallery/half performance space. Coupled with a worthwhile environmental cause (the insect molestation of Kentucky hemlock trees) and the obviously sunny vibe of a sizable audience, there were numerous makings for an appealing evening. But the sound system simply crashed and/or was manned by people unfamiliar at bringing music to life in a venue that usually exists as a warehouse.

For the first half hour, Oldham and the old-timey Louisville country roots ensemble The Picket Line (a purposely scrappy sounding pre-bluegrass string band augmented by electric guitar) were left onstage wondering, as was the audience, if a show could be salvaged. Initially, the ensemble tried a few unplugged tunes. As such, the show-opening You Remind Me of Something was good rustic fun if you were within five feet of the stage. Beyond that, it was like watching TV with the sound down.

The ever-animated Oldham tried valiantly to compensate – a big deal, considering he doesn’t really have the vocal depth or range to provide any purist authority to this kind of music in the first place. Eventually, sound seemed to come through in pockets. Some mics worked, most didn’t. That caused Oldham to point his vocal mic to amps or to any featured instrumentalist in order to get some semblance of balanced sound. That’s how bad things got.

There were a few whimsical moments. The Picket Line offered a pensive take on Randy Newman’s even more caustic take on My Old Kentucky Home while Oldham indulged in a theme-friendly reading of the Stanley Brothers’ Hemlocks and Primroses. But, again, as a singer, Oldham did not summon much more than a vaudevillian feel for the vintage music with or without the sound problems. At his best, he recalled a young Rick Danko with the high, broken desperation that enveloped I’ll Be Glad, Easy Does It and a curiously sad desconstruction of the Sam Cooke soul classic A Change is Gonna Come. Oldham and The Picket Line deserve bonus points for pulling even those highlights from what was, aurally, a doomed performance.

In the end, Oldham thanked the crowd for “enduring” the evening.  And that the patrons did with honors. There was no visible audience dissent over the technical wreckage other than the occasional shouts of “turn it up.”

Up? This show never left the ground.

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