For a bunch of ‘local boys’ leaving Sunart and delving into Moidart is to retrace musical markers. The Salen, the Sheil, the Clan Ranald (hotels), and all the tigh na ceildh’s, before finally arriving at what was my teenage musical Mecca – Glenuig. Tents pitched between showers we headed of the pub, its sun lounge windows steamed by damp campers – time to see what ‘Bonnie Prince Billy’ (Will Oldham) fans look like.
My wife and I went to see Will Oldham tour ‘SuperWolf’ last year. In a hot Queens Hall he rocked out songs to a pre convinced set of trendy artistic types who made me wish I hadn’t wore my welly’s (actually I hadn’t). Here, on the geographical and musical fringe was a chance to locate the legendary dedication of Oldham fans. But, how to spot it?
“Are you here to see Harem Scarem or Bonnie Prince Billy”, someone asked, I looked at them, “Bonnie Prince Billy” I said somewhat confused. Having never thought of myself as dedicated to anything, I was beginning to wonder if my friends and I were ‘the fans’.
The music starts with surprise additions ‘Jimmy Joyce Rolls Royce’, a Scottish Balkan band who played a laid back South American style Jazz. Then on come Harem Scarem. It was then I began to appreciate why someone asked who I was here to see. I really started to take note when accordionist Inge Thomson began to sing, there is a fragile broken quality to her vocal. At the time I was reminded of pop-punk Cyndi Lauper. However, when Will Oldham came on and sang about his own strange and vulnerable world, Inge’s and Wills voice seemed to recall the mountain music from the Smithsonian archive I picked up last year in Tennessee.
Harem Scarem members connect all corners of the Scottish music scene. From, fiddler Sarah McFadyen with Aberfeldy, to Inge with Karine Polwart, and guitarist Ross Martin playing in Cliar and Daimh. Not forgetting fiddler Eilidh Shaw, who plays with ceildh bands and John Rae’s Celtic Feet, and the Gaelic song of flautist Nuala Kennedy. These busy cross references bring a sense of musical urgency to Oldham’s lo-fi early songs (from ‘Ease on Down Road’ and ‘I See a Darkness’), and complement the instrumentally polished songs from ‘Super Wolf’ and ‘Bonnie Prince Billy Plays Palace Music’.
I often think about Will Oldham’s songs as akin the male existential angst that pitched Albert Camus ‘The Outsider’ at the top of men’s most influential reads. Well until I saw the rapture with which a young dark haired woman regarded him. In between the screams she leant forward wrapped in the songs, eventually it seemed too much and in tears she was led outside by her companion. I was just glad their was one obsessive fan present.
An encore was demanded and came. A man strode towards the stage, “come on, you’ve got the play ‘I see a darkness”, Will’s hand came out ‘Pound’ he said. The man desperately searched, ‘anyone got a pound’, hands went to pockets and one was found- a suitably strange and comicbegining to the next part of the evening…
This article originally appeared on the BBC ‘Celtic Connections’ website