Last Sunday, a vast sea of flannel poured into the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). The woodsman’s beards and thick-rimmed glasses afloat in the swirling maelstrom of intentional hipness bobbed up and down in eager anticipation for the night’s event, torn jeans resting in the plush cushions of the museum’s auditorium. It was a strange atmosphere, as if this back-country-via-Inman-Square audience had been lured in and trapped in the MFA’s relatively sterile all-purpose theatre, and only when the night’s attraction emerged in similar attire did it all begin to make sense.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham by birth) and Matt Sweeney were at the MFA supporting their recent co-release, “Superwolf,” a triumphantly maudlin recording with lyrics dripping equally with blood and irony. The lyrics have yet to wound, but Oldham’s words do indeed characteristically reference bodily fluids and gory death. The extent of the two musicians’ collaboration is unclear, as the album itself is unmistakably close to Oldham’s past recordings , whose other alter-egos include Palace and Palace Music (with brother Neil). Sweeney, whose past work includes stints with the Billy Corgan project Zwan and Guided By Voices, is indeed present on the album (and even more-so in their live performance), but each song forces Oldham to come powerfully to the fore. Sweeney is given credit for the music, and Oldham for the words, but either Sweeney has greater sonic similarities to the “Prince” than he used to, or Oldham has a firm hand in more than his credits suggest. Whatever the truth, it is a beautiful album, and Sweeney’s backing vocals and occasional stronger guitar pieces (relative to Oldham’s usual style) allow the album to explore entirely new branches of the Bonnie musical tree.
“Superwolf” rears its terrible head most fearsomely when presented in an intimate venue like the MFA. With a seated audience rising up before them, the two artists and some accompanying musicians laid bare the full force of their music, the hurt and fragility of Oldham’s lyrics wafting up towards eager ears. Playing eleven of the new album’s twelve tracks, the set clearly showcased the two troubadours’ collaborative work, while the sparse interjections of Oldham’s older work and some creative covers added an historical layer in which the audience delighted. Bonnie fans come from a clearly definable demographic, the wannabe-rustic late-twenty-somethings turning out in force to support sheep of their own flock.
These particular sheep, it turns out, can sing beautifully. Starting off with a spree of “Superwolf” tracks, Oldham, bearded and bald, and Sweeney, tall and mustachioed, stood shoulder to shoulder. While the former handled the majority of the singing while picking away at what looked like a guitar version of the McCartney style viola-base, the latter harmonized in a higher register while covering most of the guitar work himself. Indeed, Oldham would often swing his axe behind his back and concentrate on singing, switching between stances and making a variety of gestures with his hands that ranged from clasped-swinging to hip-hop-esque gun-slinging.
The elegiac “Only Someone Running” was followed by a song from Oldham’s Joya called “Idea & Deed,” which is his own adaptation of a traditional song called “Both Sides the Tweed.” Bonnie then announced a new track, called “Four Screams,” proclaiming: “You’ve never heard this before.” This ended up being one of the group’s only real interactions with the crowd. It wasn’t so much that they seemed cold or distant, which happens so often, as that songs began one after the other, and it was only after the first few that Oldham acknowledged the stalwart fans before him.
Drums were an interesting addition to the music, hardly noticeable (if present) on Superwolf, juicing up some of the more charged songs (“My Home is the Sea” and “Goat and Ram” both crescendoed in new ways in the live setting). As enigmatic and skittish as Oldham is known to be, he comes off remarkably calm and melody-oriented on both the album and the stage, and because this contrasts some with his past, often frenetic, work, it may be chalked up to Sweeney’s presence and the collaborative nature of the relationship, something relatively unknown to the “Prince.”
Some of the most intriguing moments came after the band had left the stage, only to return for the increasingly requisite encore performance (the second encore is the new encore, after all). The finale was begun with a cover of “Inside of You,” by the similarly outlandish countryish troubadour named Tom Jans. The song reflected a lot of Oldham’s own tendencies, including his bizarrely overt and yet endearing tendency to inject sexual references into otherwise Platonic enough songs of love lost and found (well, mostly lost). The group followed this cover with a beautiful, shuffling version of pre-bluegrass classic “Happy In Prison,” Oldham and Sweeney singing, “For a cross receive a crown,” tying religion into the lyrical framework (as Bonnie himself often does), blurring listeners’ conception of who he is and what he stands for.
In the end, the polite, affable Oldham remarked, “This is a Mighty Fine...what does the “A” stand for?,” belying his literate roots. He and Sweeney, and their blue-collar, hangover-paced dirges, resonated perfectly with the crowd of neo-barnyard city-dwellers, and transformed the Museum, at least temporarily, into a “trustagrarian” haven.