Bonnie "Prince” Billy / Human Bell St. James Hall, Vancouver BC - November 10

It was like some kind of beard convention at St. James Hall. Hordes of be-whiskered music faithful wandered among the pews of the church-cum-community centre that was home to a three-night run by Will Oldham’s most recent and enduring persona, Bonnie "Prince” Billy. The opening duo, Baltimore’s Human Bell, played a pair of electric guitars (and occasionally trumpet) during an atmospheric set of instrumentals that generated all of the charged anticipation of an operatic overture. But although the venue helped create a warm and reverent mood, the acoustics of the room left something to be desired. The high ceilings, combined with his band’s enthusiastic instrumentation, rendered most of Oldham’s songs — selections from this year’s disc, The Letting Go, as well as his extensive back catalogue — all but unrecognisable. It was an intense, enveloping concert experience but one that was ultimately unsatisfying for those fans who had been hoping to hear the delicate melodies found on Oldham’s records. The five-piece band ripped each song apart and pasted it back together in jagged chunks — songs began in shambolic fragments, eventually coalescing into heavy, complex affairs with barely comprehensible lyrics. The contrast between Oldham’s live and recorded music was particularly evident on the distortion-laden versions of the acoustic songs from Master and Everyone. The subtle "Wolf Among Wolves” erupted with a shriek of near-unbearable feedback and a tremendous grinding of guitars. Selections from 2001’s Ease on Down the Road were among the evening’s highlights. "The Lion Lair” blasted across the room in driving waves, manic piano lines filling in the cracks and hollows, Oldham’s hoarse wail spiralling up to the wooden rafters. A greater balance between tough and tender would have been nice, but for those who were able to embrace the onslaught, the crashing waves of sound were like a pumice stone scrubbing away the rough, dirty edges of the soul.