This time last week, I was sitting in Birmingham International Airport not completely sure why I was there. I knew why I was there, but not quite whether the idea would live up to the reality. The idea was pretty big.
One of my more recent musical obsessions (the aforementioned Billy - Will Oldham) was doing a tour of Scotland (and Gateshead and Belfast), and the tour was to end in a village hall on the far western coast of the Scottish Highlands. Our plan was to fly to Glasgow, hire a car and drive to Lochaimort (or something like that) - a drive of approximately four hours. We had booked a guest house in Lochaimort, so we would get there and then figure out where Glenuig was. After finding a little food, we would then head down to Glenuig and see what the deal was. Caroline and Che were accompanying me - more for the ridiculousness of the journey than the performance itself. Che was simply excited about going to Scotland and her first gig - having been effectively excluded from most of the previous gigs we had gone to. Neither Che nor Caroline would consider themselves Bonnie 'Prince' Billy fans. I was aware that if Oldham was to turn in one of his more esoteric performances, I would almost certainly be on my own in terms of enjoying the show - and most will know the discomfort of forcing people to go somewhere when they are thoroughly not enjoying it. You almost feel guilty for enjoying it yourself, inevitably dampening your own experience.
Add to all this the simple difficulty of getting me out of the house, and my pre-disposition to feel sick or ill at the slightest glimmer of anxiety, and you can probably imagine me sitting in Birmingham airport pondering the stupidity of my bloody grand ideas - while typically feeling nauseous at the merest thought of the flight.
The flight passed off without hitch - another tragedy averted - and we hired our car. I had ensured that we had plenty of CDs to accompany us - including a bunch for Che. So our journey was well under way. It has to be added at this point that the Glaswegians had been really helpful. The airport was right at the very north of the city, and so we were out of it in no time.
The scenery was spectacular. Now this is not a travelogue, so I will not bore you with details, but the Highlands are nothing if not beautiful. Within minutes of leaving glasgow, you are surrounded by lakes and towering hills and mountains. The roads are quiet enough, and it is quiet easy to be overwhelmed by the drama of the landscape.
Meanwhile, Che listened to Sugababes and MIA and Tatu and Gwen Stefani (three quarters of which I quite like myself) really bloody loud. But this added to the drive - there was a nice family feeling. This is something I experience as being quite fleeting.
After a stop in Fort William for a meal, we arrived in Lochaimort at about 3. The guest house struck me as a strange affair. It was a house in the middle of nowhere - really - populated by worryingly friendly folk, who didn't seem to let having never met you get in the way of a good welcome. I should add that despite the fact that the house was not that big, there appeared to be millions of children and animals. If I had seen more beards and women with sagging breasts I would have taken it for a hippie commune.
We caught our bearings and then drove down to Glenuig. The weather was frightening at this point, the rain a visible thick mist surrounding the mountains and rising from the sea. The Glenuig village hall looked diminished in such surroundings. It looked like one of those miniature rural churches that held about 8 people and a cow. We drove off again, and I could feel my anxiety rising. People were camping around the village hall and they all looked sturdy and as they knew what they were doing - like travelling a 1,000 miles for a concert was something they did every other weekend. I felt like I had done something slightly stupid and I had brought my family along to watch.
We had been unsuccessful at locating food and Che was getting jumpy about this. I was secretly mildly happy about this, since nothing contributes to my discomfort levels like having to find somewhere to eat. We popped into the Glenuig Inn to see if they had any sandwiches - they didn't so we headed straight down to the Village Hall in the hope that the bar might have some crisps or nuts.
The Village Hall was laid out like a small evangelical church, all light wooden beams and fold out chairs. But we were first there, and chose the second row - the front row always worries me. A while later the show began. First up were a Bosnian Band who appeared to have just shown up out of nowhere, and established a coup on the stage. They were the Jimmy Joyce Rolls Royce Band. The name tells you plenty, but in addition to this, they were an OK lounge-jazz act, all lightweight sambas. There was a pretty singer, with the sort of haunted look one sees in pictures of people that have been through some hardship (so that's alright, then), who sang a couple of very sad songs. The only thing that made them memorable to me was that they had a violinist - this gave them a touch of the Calexicos. But only the lightweight samba bits of Calexico. They were easily forgotten when the real music started...
After a short interval, Harem Scarem took the stage. Harem Scarem are made up of four women - two violinists, a flautist and an accordianist, and a man, who played guitar. These guys were one home ground, since they immediately engendered a huge cheer as they broke into some foot-stomping ceilidh thing. The two fiddles glided off each other, as one held a beat with her clogs on the wooden floor. The flautist jumped to penny whistle and back again, and the accordian held the whole sound down. It was an uptempo gig, and the band were very much in their element - loving the adulation that the audience poured upon them. The pace only slowed down for a couple of songs written and sung by Inge, the accordianist. She had the thinnest, wispiest voice, high-pitched and fragile and sang a couple slight girly songs, while the others provided harmonies and light accompaniment on their instruments. It was over quick, they had had a great time and their enjoyment was infectious - and any reservations that one might have had musically were washed aside in the flighty-girlish enthusiasm they stuffed into the 25 minutes they were on stage.
They provided a vivid contrast to the eventual arrival of Will Oldham on stage. By this time, I had chatted with a few other people at the gig, and had heard mildly conflicting accounts of the tour. These were people who had seen Oldham many times before, but had also caught earlier dates. They had talked of the lightening effect that Harem Scarem had had on Oldham's songs, but also the joyfulness they brought and how that was a positive texture that can be discerned only with determination in some parts of his work. Oldham's songs are male songs. There is no question about it - his words evoke a masculinity, which while never macho or full of bravado, capture the pleasures and the desires and the anxieties of a male experience*. I myself, having seen Harem Scarem, was curious about the possible feminising effect they might have.
Will came on stage alone and opened with a song that stuck me - and evidently him - as entirely appropriate to the surroundings, 'The Mountain Low'. His beard was trimmed, but he was dressed unassumingly but with a single line of black drawn beneath his eyes. Perhaps it was just me, but there was some transfixing about him, something completely honest about his presence. Now, I know that is partially a result of immersion in his songs over the last year or so, and I also know that a significant element is an intention to present a persona, which does not necessarily reflect Will Oldham as he actually is - whomever than might be. But regardless of my subjective apprehending of him, nor his presentation of this character, it was utterly believable and it drew me in quickly. Using his face and movement, he enunciated his songs, making them clear and real.
He sang a couple more songs unaccompanied - I honestly cannot remember the setlisting - before being joined onstage by Nuala from Harem Scarem. Together, they performed a duet of 'Hard Life'. Initially, she seemed awed of Will, but it served a good introduction to Harem Scarem's arrival on stage, which followed the song. They came on quickly, accompanied by Alex Nielson on drums. His name was not immediately familiar to me, but he has played on recordings by Alasdair Roberts and apparently - so I'm told - is quite a renowned improvisational musician. The set was long - about one and half hours not counting encores - and consisted of many songs that have long been Bonnie 'Prince' Billy classics - 'New Partner', 'A Minor Place', My Home is the Sea', 'Beast For Thee', 'Master and Everyone', 'Wolf among Wolves', 'Arise Therefore', 'You Will Miss Me When I Burn'.
Harem Scarem provided a good counter-point to Oldham's songs, adding new textures to many songs I am used to hearing with a more traditional backing. Where the combination really worked - and worked brilliantly - were in a couple of traditional folk songs. They did a version of Molly Bawm (the version I am familiar with is on Alasdair Roberts' 'No Earthly Man', which was produced by by Oldham) that was hypnotic. This is a traditional tale about a young man who kills his beloved because he mistook her for a swan, and the take here was dark and malevolent. The fiddles creating a growing sense of foreboding, and heavy sweeps from the accordian providing a depth. Will's interpretation is violent and fearsome, and he delivers the story with a strong stomach for the horror within. However, the most impressive element was from Alex Nielson, the drummer. His use of rhythm and counter-rhythm, percussion and finding the right texture sound for each element of the song was spellbinding.
Will seemed in good humour throughout the concert. While he was not over-communicative with the audience, he was not distant either, and seemed indulgent of some of the eccentricities. There was the predictable howling during 'Wolf among Wolves'. Towards the end people began shouting out requests. During one song in the encore, a couple of women began a waltz along the aisle. Before the final song in the encore, one man - pissed - offered Oldham a pound to play the song of his choice. The joke - apparently - was on him, since it was the song which closed every encore during the tour.
The encore was perfect. Two songs perfectly chosen. The first was 'Madeline Mary', which allowed the entire company to throw themselves into it. It is a rowsing song under most conditions, but here it was given a fairly upbeat rhythm, which made the crowd come alive - despite the fact that it almost 12 and Will had been onstage for nearly two hours. After a confused pissed man's desparate payment for the song of his choice. Will closed with 'I See a Darkness'. If Will Oldham has a signature song, this must be it and the audience knew it. Even with several people singing along far too loud for appropriate anonymity, it was bewitching. It was sung with meaning, and somehow this song of solemn comradeship and brotherhood and hopes and fears and loves appeared to speak to everyone about something. After it, there was little more to be said, and nothing was said.
Once the truth was clear - many people held on to the hope of a second encore for a long time. There was a sense of elation and I think that many moments of personal history were noted. There was something jubilant about the mood, like people emerging from a trial of initiation. Maybe I am waxing too lyrical here, but that was simply my reading.
I See a Darkness had an additional poignancy when we stepped outside, since that exactly what we saw. Back in the hall it was easy to neglect the fact but it was the middle of nowhere - probably many miles from the nearest street lighting. We drove home quiet but satisfied.
The next day we drove a little further up the coast. I was so impressed by the scenery. I am a city kid by birth, and I have a certain antipathy to the countryside, but this was beyond countryside. I was not looking at nature beaten into submission by thousands of years of farming, but nature standing quietly secure and unviolated. The people that live in that area seem to recognise that. I wanted to move there and just let the spirits speak to me. Another fleeting dream perhaps...
The drive home was uneventful. We were all tired and a little subdued, and I know for myself that my thoughts were gradually re-adjusting themselves to returning to Birmingham and the new term at school. But the weekend had been a complete success. Not only in terms of seeing Will Oldham, but also as an adventure and as a joint experience for the family. We don't have too many of those.
* This is not to say that Will Oldham cannot write from other perspectives (see Oldham's 'His Hands' on Candi Staton's new CD by the same title)
Finally a note about the photos. For some reason two of the video clips I took of Will Oldham vanished from the camera. If I had known that they were going to do that I would have take more straight pictures. Please don't talk about it. It's a sore point.