Review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – “Summer in the Southeast”

Is the latest gem from Will Oldham a supplemental companion to Sings Greatest Palace Music or a response to the criticism that welcomed that record’s much-anticipated arrival? Just a year and change after the 15-song best-of set confounded critics and left a fair number of Oldham devotees scratching their heads, the chameleonic Palace/Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy ringleader returns to the table with another collection of impeccably chosen past works. Like Greatest Palace Music, Summer in the Southeast — the literal-minded title given the new set of live recordings, captured in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina — offers new angles on familiar Oldham fare.

But that seems to be where most the similarities end. Where the studio record offered calculated points of departure for old staples and fan favorites, the new disc offers amped-up variations and explorations. It’s a more organic development of existing Palace and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy material, and it all happens right in front of you, on stage with the amps buzzing, in real time with the between-song chatter and performance thrills intact.

Electricity surges through much of the 17-song live offering, and that’s an important distinction to make for those expecting the acoustic refrains of many of Oldham’s records. There are fragile-folk tracks here that remain subdued, pensive, or relatively spare (“Wolf Among Wolves,” the Oldham/Sweeney number “Beast for Thee,” a stripped-down “Nomadic Revery”), but, for the most part, the disc is an exercise in stomping the stage and revving up the choruses. The results can be everything from invigorating (the pounding, distorted crunch and communal yelps of “Death to Everyone”) to incredible (the eruption of the meditative “Master & Everyone” or “Pushkin”).

Elsewhere, the songs get reworked to the point where they resemble, less and less, their earlier recorded forms. “Madeleine Mary,” not a restrained affair when it surfaced on I See a Darkness, is recast here as a surge of blues-rock energy, complete with a backing chorus and wailing electric guitar solos. The heart-breaking ballad “I Send My Love to You,” off Days in the Wake, rears its head near the end of the proceedings as a late-night county and western romp, honky-tonk pianos and all. (“Ease Down the Road,” though far more reserved, gets a similar, Western-tinged treatment.)

But, even when the live renditions are more faithful to their original sources, the results are no less exciting, and the record, as a result, feels like an honest treat for longtime fans. Oldham and his partners in crime — among them Matt Sweeney, Paul Oldham, Peter Townsend, and others — offer no lack of great material, from an enveloping “I See a Darkness” and “Blokbuster” to “Take However Long You Want” and a particularly biting “A Sucker’s Evening.”

“O Let it Be” is perhaps one of the record’s finest tracks, exploding with the same new-found vitality that the Peel Sessions offered the Smog gem “I Break Horses” on Accumulation: None. Oldham — in all his disguises and under all his monikers — continues recording and releasing beautiful and engaging work but Summer in the Southeast is a reminder of the breathtaking career he’s pursued to date, a live set that’s both the ideal complement and follow-up to Greatest Palace Music. – Delusions of Adequacy, March 20, 2006

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