‘They’re really great live…’ people often insist, when I appear unconvinced by their particular musical offering. It is true that a live recording often reveals the real character of a band; there is an immediacy which can lift the music above an album template. There is always the risk, though, that a live performance can expose the over-produced limitations of a band’s music.
No one could ever accuse Bonnie Prince Billy of being ‘over produced’ and Is It The Sea? confirms his natural habitat as the stage rather than the studio. This is a brilliant record which bears witness to one night on BPB’s 2006 tour of Scotland and Ireland. He is joined by Edinburgh’s Harem Scarem on close harmonies, fiddle, flute, banjo and accordion and Glasgow’s Alex Nielson on drums and percussion. Much of the vitality of this recording comes from the contribution which these collaborators have to make. The highland lilt of their fiddle, accordion and flute accompaniments give BPB’s primal tales of love and loss, a real sense of depth. Their harmonies are always pure and direct; there is no great elaboration, only a mainlining of the musical heritage that BPB's revised American folk stems from.
Particular high points include Birch Ballad, a mesmeric Is It The Sea and an increasingly demented version of Cursed Sleep. In the act of performance many of the songs have been turned and twisted from immediately recognizable favourites.
Billie’s music has always carried a kind of medieval foreboding which is dramatically amplified here. In the case of Molly Bawn, the song’s minor key and archaic language are given an extra twist of Celtic wailing. The result is that the balladic tradition from which this song springs, appears alive and well in the hands of Bonnie Prince Billie.
There is a real authenticity to these recordings and a genuine fervour in the audience’s response. We are as far removed from the boot-tapping folksiness of American country as is possible. Instead the backdrop to these performances is that of a European heritage, an aural culture where tales were passed from generation to generation by firelight. Bonnie Prince Billie has appeared to us in many different guises but on Is it the Sea? he is at his most convincing as a kind of musical emigrant brought back to his roots.