VICTORIA, Australia -- The first thing you notice about Will Oldham is how much younger he is than his songs would have you believe.
His tales of justice, redemption, guilt and biblical fury conjure up images of a
60-year-old blues man -- nothing at all like the strangely attractive 28-year-old who took center stage Saturday night at the Punters Club Hotel. The second thing you notice about Oldham is that he's wearing thick black eyeliner.
Losing the Palace moniker for the recently released Joya CD -- until last year, Oldham recorded as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Records and Palace Music -- also seems to have set Oldham free of his past. Not
only did the night's set feature little older material, but apart from the Kentucky twang of his voice (he grew up in Louisville) and a studded leather belt, Oldham seems to have lost his predilection for country music as well.
Touring Australia for only the second time, this series of shows marked the
first time Oldham has graced these shores with the power of a band behind him.
Assembling a crack four-piece outfit especially for the tour, his band includes
local legends the Dirty Three's Mick Turner on guitar and Jim White on drums, fellow American Liam Hayes (Plush, Royal Trux) on Fender
Rhodes and Fender Bass Rhodes keyboards and Oldham on occasional guitar. Drawing songs mainly from his latest release, Joya, the one-hour-and-20-minute-show kicked off with the mid-tempo album opener, "Let It Be."
This was quickly followed by a cover of David Allen Coe's "In My Mind" (one of the three songs by this highly respected Ohio country songwriter that Oldham
covers in his current live set), which proved to be the closest thing to the fractured country of Oldham's past.
While Oldham worked last year with Turner and White on the Steve Albini-produced four-song EP Western Music, this tour marks the first time these four individuals have performed together as a unit. Having convened for a week of rehearsals in sunny Byron Bay prior to the tour, the outfit
displayed a great balance between being cohesive as a group and not being
so slick that the music was devoid of any of the tension or humanity for which
Oldham is revered.
In fact, the whole show provided a dramatic change from the acoustic
performance Oldham gave on his first Australia tour last February, with the
twin guitar, keyboard and drums lineup giving the material a more straight-ahead guitar-pop sound. Of course this is Oldham we're talking about here, so despite the sweetness of the sounds, he still delivered biting material such as Arise Therefore's "You Have Come In Your Hair" and "Your Dick Is Hanging Out," and "Take However Long You Want" from the recent "Patience"
With his light blond hair and incredibly pale features offset by the
dark eyeliner and physical nature of his performance, Oldham's songs come
across as completely honest. You genuinely believe he's buckling under the
weight of guilt, regret or, more often, fury that populate his songs. The fire and brimstone approach of his subject matter served only to heighten his already unhinged appearance. In his powder-blue office shirt and clutching a cherry-red Gibson SG, regardless of whether he actually used it during a song or not, Oldham came across as completely engrossed in his art, and he successfully took the capacity crowd with him all the way. Despite the sweltering heat from 350 people crammed into the tiny room, the audience's attention never seemed to wane and all eyes and ears remained locked intently on center stage.
The somber "Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow" proved a moment of calm before the
closing four-song storm. Joya's "Be Still and Know God (Don't Be Shy)"
became one of the evening's highlights as the keyboard drove it along to a
toe-tapping, pure-pop finish. "More Brother Rides" from Viva Last Blues
caught the band all peaking at once with Turner stepping up for a rare solo, having taken a more subtle, rhythm-oriented approach for the bulk of the show.
Set closer "(End of) Traveling" was even dedicated to Turner and White, to mark the welcome return to their hometown following this national tour.
Screams and stomps from the enthusiastic crowd saw Oldham return on his own with his electric guitar and treat the crowd to a stripped-back solo
version of "The Brute Choir" from Viva Last Blues, before the rest of the troupe returned for a rousing finale of "Werner's Last Blues To Blokbuster"
from the Hope EP.
Yes, Oldham is a young man. But he sure doesn't sound like it. [Thurs., Jan. 29, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]