Bonnie Prince Billy With Harem Scarem and Alex Nielson | WIG213 | Released: 17/10/08
Is It The Sea? captures, in remarkable clarity, performances from the Bonnie Prince’s sold out tour of Scotland and Ireland (and Newcastle) in the Spring of 2006. The tour found Billy in the company of Edinburgh’s Harem Scarem on close harmonies, fiddle, flute, banjo and accordion and Glasgow’s wunderkind Alex Neilson on drums and percussion.
For this tour Bonnie reached deep into his catalogue to produce a set long on magic and high on drama. Is It The Sea? captures Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in unique surroundings (isn’t he always?) deep in the midst of some of Scotland’s most adventurous traditional players. Arranged with a distinctly Caledonian air, the songs are animated by Harem Scarem’s grasp of traditional harmony singing and Neilson’s stately passive / aggressive playing. To the fore is Bonny Billy’s rich and resolute on-stage voice.
Familiar album tracks that on record are hushed performances - 'Master And Everyone', 'Wolf Among Wolves' and 'Minor Place'- become rousingly emotional. Songs that have hitherto drawn you in with their intimacy are performed here in the resonance of the moment. Hearing the opening couplet from 'Love Comes To Me' sung out loud and clear:
“When the numbers get so high / of the dead flying through the sky”
is an uplifting and convincing argument for living for today.
Three tracks: 'Cursed Sleep', the traditional 'Molly Bawn', and Superwolf’s 'My Home is The Sea' both clock in around eight minutes. The band keep it loose and circular and stretch out on these tracks, allowing the voices to direct the drama, harmonies soaring up and down. 'Molly Bawn' in particular sees the band revel in the possibilities of playing a traditional ballad. Neilson marking out a loping kind of waltz which builds until everyone present is playing hell for leather, as Bonnie and Harem Scarem trade lines and up the intensity verse by verse. The result is a palpable sense of euphoria as the band and the audience realise that something pretty spectacular is going on.
Followers and watchers of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, whether Palace veterans or the newly converted, will know never to second guess what they’re about to hear on record or on stage when they see the BPB name. Is It The Sea? adds another layer of depth to one of the most beguiling catalogues in modern music; a recorded moment that finds Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy at the height of his powers, revelling in his songs and his surroundings. Sit back and imagine you’re there and your world will be a better place.