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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Harem Scarem, Whelans, Dublin, 19th April 2006

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On his UK and Ireland tour Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy blessed the good people of Dublin with two shows. Unfortunately I could only make one of them but what a show it was. Backed by the folk band Harem Scarem, his songs took on a new life, making the original recordings pale in comparison.


Harem Scarem warmed the crowd up with a short set of their own material. They proclaimed their songs as “music about being sick” but it’s like no sickness I’ve ever experienced. The music was an upbeat and spirited combination of Irish and Scottish traditional music with just a pinch of bluegrass. There was a palpable feeling of elation in the audience. While they probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea if I was listening to them at home on a stereo, live they were captivating. Kennedy’s flute playing was one of the highlights. The flute, along with the saxophone, is an instrument that normally strikes terror into my heart thanks to hearing so many performers commit acts of musical genocide with it. Thankfully on this night I was treated to a highly enjoyable performance.

Once their set was over, Harem Scarem departed and a few minutes later Oldham took the stage. Immediately he had the audience firmly in his grasp as he belted out a couple of songs on his own. Soon Harem Scarem returned along with Alex Nielson on drums and the show really took off with “A Minor Place.” The setlist mainly covered the most recent chunk of Oldham’s back catalogue. As a result nearly every song was a crowd pleaser such as “Wolf among Wolves” and “Pushkin.” Compared to the studio versions of these songs which in most cases were quite minimal and centered on Oldham’s voice, the live renditions were explosions of musical color with banjo, accordion and violins being driven by Nielson’s superb drumming. At times Oldham was overwhelmed in the mix but this worked to the advantage of the songs as the stories became more alive.

The absolute pinnacle of the performance was the traditional song “Molly Bawn,” which Oldham had previously contributed to on an Alasdair Roberts album. It is the story of a man mistaking his love for a swan and shooting her dead with Oldham playing the unfortunate man and Kennedy from Harem Scarem playing the woman’s ghost. The music was almost funereal with Thomson’s accordion forming a drone over which the other players added flourishes to. After this, even Oldham’s impeccable stock of songs had a lot to prove.

Finishing off the set with “Master and Everyone,” “My Home is the Sea,” and a raucous version of “Madeleine Mary,” the crowd was left baying and bellowing for more. Oldham obliged with the obvious choice of encore, “I See a Darkness.” On that note the audience dispersed, buzzing with excitement after such an electric performance. Looking back at the performance I can safely say that what made this show so special was the fact that Harem Scarem provided the most suitable backing for Oldham’s music that I’ve heard. Not only do Oldham’s lyrics and melodies fit their instrumentation and style perfectly, the four ladies’ backing vocals provided a wonderful contrast to Oldham’s vocals. Oldham’s cracked and sometimes tuneless voice sounded even more passionate when it cut through the silky and harmonious choir of Harem Scarem. I sincerely hope that this pairing between them continues as everyone needs to experience them at least once in their lives.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 April 2006 03:47  


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