In 1992, when I moved out of my parents’ house to a small apartment on Slater Street, I felt old. Not grown-up old, mind you, but world-weary old. You know the deal. I had a penchant for drinking Cisco mixed with Hawaiian Punch, listening to syrupy, sentimental Reprise-era Frank Sinatra albums like Cycles, and basking in the unique bitterness and nostalgia that only the hardened, grizzled age of 16 brings.
Living in the same town long enough produces some extraordinary occurrences. Tonight, during a spellbinding show at the Orchard Spotlight, Will Oldham provided one in the form of “Cycles,” the Frank Sinatra song that I used to replay over and over just a few blocks away.
“So I’m down, and so I’m out, but so are many others…”
Oldham and his band completely claimed the song as their own, while I, amazed that he’d chosen such an unusual song to cover, thought about age. Do we ever really feel as old as we do when we’re 16? We hit our 30s and all of that hard-earned “wisdom” and half-fledged nostalgia fades away, and we grow ever open to new experiences even as the opportunities for new experiences occur less and less.
What’s happening? Why do we lose our toeholds of self-assurance as we get older? Why do people’s feathers get so ruffled over age? Why is it easier to make young people feel old than it is to make old people feel young? Why don’t young people realize they have the rest of the blobby, unsure, aging world in their hands?
Why does Will Oldham sometimes stand on one leg like a stork?
“I’ve been told, and I believe, that life is meant for livin’…”
Tonight, Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, age 38, played the world-weary music he’s played since he too was a teenager, and showcased perfectly why his live shows are at least twice as good as his albums, if not more. His outstanding band broadcast a new cosmic American music inside the Orchard Spotlight, with crests and turns and tangents and silent forks upon which to dwell on life’s mysteries. His songs ballooned both inward, outward and lateral, and sounded like Oldham’s music has always sounded—wiser than its age.
The sheer fact that Oldham even played the Orchard Spotlight on this trip is impressive enough. This is Oldham’s “real” tour, where instead of playing the Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes, like he did in 2004, or Pegasus Hall in Monte Rio, like he did in 2002, he’s playing the Fillmore; there’s commercials on television for his new album, Beware, and almost all his shows are in large theaters. Last year, however, local soundman Ross Harris walked up to him in San Francisco and asked if he’d like to play a beautiful old church in downtown Santa Rosa. Sure, Oldham replied.
Tickets, limited to 130, sold out in about a day, and diehards, begging for extras on Craigslist, flocked from miles around. I met a guy at the show who’d driven all the way from Tahoe. “I saw him once in the middle of a forest outside of Athens, where I used to live,” he told me, more than happy to make the trek to pick up a last-minute ticket at the Last Record Store. “He’s worth a four-hour drive.”
The show began in grand fashion: Oldham, wearing a stained V-neck T-shirt, white cap, polyester slacks and no shoes or socks, hit the stage with the squat giddiness of a teenager and launched his band into the Carter Family standard “Nobody’s Darlin’ on Earth,” with each member of his band and the opening band taking verses in a steam-train hootenanny usually reserved for ending instead of opening a set.
“We’re back in the country, building the confusion hill brick by brick,” Oldham announced, referencing the Humboldt County roadside attraction they’d passed earlier in the day. He then asked, to no one in particular, “What was your favorite song growing up?”
“Shout at the Devil!” someone said. “No, no,” Oldham said, “growing up!” “Growin’ Up!” some clever person said. “I Want a New Drug!” said another. “Yellow Submarine,” said yet another. Oldham launched into “Beware Your Only Friend,” the first song from Beware, and midway through began singing, “In the town / Where I was born / Lived a man who sailed the sea…”
When Oldham gets excited, he manifests it in strange ways. He shoves his hands all the way down into his pockets and pulls his pants up to his chest. He yanks his cap off and holds it high with an animated face. He ravels his arms in pretzel-like patterns, and splays them out into the air like a drag queen, and rolls one pant leg up, and throws his head down and sticks his gut out and falls to his knees.
Is it intentional, or improvised? The question could also be asked of his band—his band!—who could thunder down the line like a Southern Pacific for one song (“I Don’t Belong to Anyone”), wander in a semi-Haggard haze for another (“Love Comes to Me”) and then fall apart in beautiful, formless atmosphere for the next (“There Is Something I Have To Say”). Drummer Jim White, often looking like an angry Ron Jeremy, was a particular standout; he’d explore the drum kit like free-jazz pioneer Sunny Murray, nail down hi-hats like Booker T. & the MG’s Al Jackson, Jr., and lay back behind the beat like Tonight’s the Night’s Ralph Molina. Oldham’s band on this tour is exceptional—all of them, truly, were excellently in tune with each other and engaging to watch—but White’s the reason it feels the way it does.
Sometime soon after the semi-gospel coda of “I am Goodbye” and the brilliant reclamation of “Cycles,” Oldham brought out Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, an old tourmate and studio partner who I can only assume lives in Sonoma County now (she played at Aubergine a couple weeks ago, and won a yodeling contest at the Mystic Theater last month). Oldham introduced his band to her, but not to the audience, and had a conversation about her new baby, which slept in the room behind the stage. McCarthy took center stage for most of the rest of the set. They sang the duet “Lay and Love,” and Oldham was happy—he grabbed his big toe and pulled his foot as far behind his back as it could go.
Maybe Oldham stays young by playing old music. Maybe when he sings, during “I Called You Back,” that “the older that we get we know that nothing else for us is possible,” he’s offering a warning rather than a truth. Sure, we’re getting older. It happens. Let’s bask in it, like we did when we were 16. On nights like this one, this one special night in Santa Rosa, we can spill out of a fantastic show and walk home through the deserted streets, and it’ll feel like everything else for us is possible.