It must be a chore to be loved by Will Oldham. For the very same reasons, it is spectacular to hear him sing his songs.
The Kentucky-bred musician drenches the glorified sentimentalism of country-western parlance in the corrosive waters of philosophical disquiet. His intellect and self-doubt would probably be endearing if they didn’t have that nasty habit of seeping outward, like a puddle of scalding coffee from a chipped mug. They attack all the things he dares to love, and warn him quietly: “Beware.”
Cloaked in blue-and-white striped overalls and the pseudonym Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Oldham began Wednesday night at the Estragon in Bologna, Italy, with a series of relatively traditional saloon crooners. A stirring rendition of “You Don’t Love Me,” off his latest full-length, was an early highlight; Oldham and fiddler/secret weapon Cheyenne Mize called to each other in harmonies, at once wrenching and as sweet as funnel cake at the state fair: “You don’t love me, but that’s alright / ’Cause you cling to me all through the night.”
And then, somewhere about five songs in, the aircraft that’d been hovering in the ether over Dallas-Fort Worth International renounced the landing strip and headed for the stratosphere. With natural ease but fearsome adamancy, Oldham and his four-piece band careened into a set packed with equal parts summer love and hard-rock desperation—at times, the tempo changes and snare slams sounded about like a Liars concert would if a fiddler came in tow.
The passion that keeps Oldham on the avant-garde and pushing outward bursts from his pores in concert. He appeared to have situated the microphone six inches too low specifically so that he would have to contort himself to reach it, and when he put down his guitar for a few songs it was clearer than ever that he simply couldn’t pour everything he wished to into each song. He was left squirming and kicking and wrapping his black leather shoe around the back of his other ankle as he sang. On “Love Comes to Me,” he yelped and hopped between verses.
For all this helpless hungering, he was a man in control; there was a sureness in his eyes that he must have picked up at some point in the past 16-plus years of touring. I was convinced he had a towering stature until his roughly 5’8” frame sauntered up to the bar after the show.
In a thunderous depiction of “There Is Something I Have to Say,” Oldham cried out, “I feel deserving of love / Can it be something I dispose of / Or put away in a box under the bed?” It’s true that there is “I” splattered all over his lyrics. But simply calling Oldham a solipsist is as insufficient as calling him alt-country. For him, these are points of departure; where another musician might end a song, he and his band turn up the tempo and enter into a vicious call-and-response of guitar and fiddle and pounding drums. Where another lyricist might drown, poignantly enough, in his own sorrow, Oldham blends doubt with hope, hope with a vicious distrust, and then turns it all on the rest of the world. “And love will protect you / To the edge of the wood, / And a monster will get you / And love does no good,” he cautioned the flock of Italian-speaking spectators during “Even if Love.” And they believed him.
Note: the above photograph is not from Wednesday's concert; it was uploaded to Flickr on March 24, 2007, by user elspop :: concert photography.