On his first visit to Nottingham two years ago, Sam Duckworth played to a scattering of sweaty punters upstairs at the Old Angel. Last night, performing as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. (no, me neither) to a capacity crowd, he faced his largest headline audience to date. Not bad going for a 20 year old whose debut album briefly grazed the lower end of the charts last autumn.
Although barely registering on the radar of anyone over 25, Duckworth’s student-based audience displayed a hearty familiarity with his lyrics, which reflect the concerns of his generation in a way that is almost without precedent in today’s decidedly smug musical climate. Unashamedly political and idealistic, his songwriting and performance style hark back to the traditions of the protest singer – but with a contemporary sound that mixes acoustic and electronic elements in a fresh, invigorating way.
At the back of the stage, each intricate, skittering backing track was synchronised to video footage, and fleshed out by a two-piece brass section and an outstanding drummer. Up front, a wide-featured, chubby-cheeked Duckworth proved to be an able, articulate performer, radiating an understated yet unmistakable charisma.
Between numbers, we were variously urged to buy from fair trade suppliers, to campaign against racism, to boycott unauthorised merchandise sellers, and to shun the dubious and exploitative agendas of reality TV.
Give Duckworth an early evening slot at Glastonbury, and there’ll be no stopping him. Just you wait and see.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Will Oldham, is an infrequent visitor to these shores. Indeed, this is only his third UK tour in eleven years. Although some later dates will be performed solo, we were treated to a full backing band, who fleshed out Oldham’s sparse and mournful alt-country stylings with a surprisingly muscular, rock-based sound.
Oldham cut an arrestingly singular figure, with a demeanour that combined the whiskered wooliness of Bob Harris, the brooding solemnity of Clement Freud, and the gangling eccentricity of a Victorian gentleman explorer – all topped by an immense, protruding forehead that looked ready to explode from the rest of him.
Opening with a sprightly cover of Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again, Oldham turned in an epic two-hour set, peaking at around the 40 minute mark with a spellbinding rendition of John Martyn’s John The Baptist. At this point, it seemed he could do no wrong. Unfortunately, the momentum proved impossible to sustain – particularly when support singer Dawn McCarthy joined him to perform some awkward, ragged duets from his most recent album.
For the encore, the rapidly tiring audience were rewarded with a stunningly intense New Partner and a good-natured lurch though Gram Parsons’ Love Hurts.
On the eve of his first UK tour in several years, Will Oldham – aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – speaks to the Post from his home in Kentucky.
So, the first date of the tour is with us here in Nottingham next Tuesday?
Yeah, but first I’m doing a show in Glasgow with Nualah Kennedy, who has put together a “Celtic Connections” festival – so I’m going to participate in that. It’s her evening, but we’re going to do a couple of my songs and a couple of traditional songs.
And this will be your first provincial English tour in quite a number of years?
There was a tour with the High Llamas and Jim White in 2001, so this is the first since then.
Any particular reasons for staying away for such a long time?
I guess I don’t play the UK and Europe that often, just because it’s so logistically difficult. But this time I’ll be performing with a full band.
You’re supported on this tour by Faun Fables, whose singer Dawn McCarthy duetted with you on the last album, The Letting Go.
Yeah, she’s on every song but one. They’re based out in Oakland, California, and for recordings there are usually two people, but Dawn will be performing solo. Then she’ll be singing with me as well. She’s a dynamic performer. It seems like there are very few performers these days, in our circles, who still have anything resembling a voice which they know how to use. Dawn has one of the most exciting commands of the voice of anyone I’ve seen.
Will this be the first time that Dawn will have performed any of the songs from The Letting Go on stage with you?
We did some dates recently out on the West Coast, about two months ago. She’s doing the first four English shows, and then that will be it in terms of doing these songs, in this way, with Dawn.
And then you’ll be continuing the tour solo – so this is an almost unique opportunity to hear the album as it was recorded.
It will be unique outside of those dates on the West Coast, yes.
To what extent will the set be drawn from the new album? I could imagine it working as a song cycle in its own right, and being performed from beginning to end.
I think it’s going to be mixed up with older material. But since Dawn will be around, we’re going to do a lot of songs from the new record.
The Letting Go was recorded in Iceland. You also did a track (Gratitude) with Björk a few years ago. Does the country hold a particular appeal for you?
Gratitude was recorded with the same Icelandic producer, and that’s where his studio is. It was nice to be in an environment that was so cloistered and hermetically sealed off from the world, and yet with such fantastical rewards. The songs weren’t written over there, but were assembled during an eighteen month period prior to the recording.
You’ve also been working on a film called Old Joy, which goes on general release in the UK next Friday. The trailer doesn’t give away much of the plot, so what can you tell us about it?
There’s not a lot to give away; it’s not a plot-driven movie at all. It’s just about two friends travelling together, over the course of a couple of days in the mountains and woods outside of Portland, Oregon. Yo La Tengo did all of the music for the score.
A few years ago, you seemed to be swapping freely between various identities: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Will Oldham, Palace Music, The Palace Brothers. These days, you’re performing mostly as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Is that a permanent switch of direction?
Since 1999, all of the recordings have been as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. To begin with, it was just a case of: let’s get the records out, and who cares what the name is. Then it seemed more appropriate to use the name of an individual. If I pretend it’s just an individual, then people won’t keep asking where the other band members are, and we won’t have to worry about the name thing anymore.
Are there any other popular preconceptions about you or your music which you’d like to dispel?
Ha ha! I am blissfully unaware.
That’s a very healthy state to be in. And thanks for dispelling the preconception that you’re a difficult interviewee.