Bonnie Prince Billy, theatre review: Patchy performance, with fragments of magnificence

Church of St John-at-Hackney, London

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“My hands are empty and my throat cracked and drawn,” Bonnie Prince Billy laments on “Teach Me to Bear You”, one of the highlights of this patchy performance, with fragments of magnificence.

The Kentuckian, who has delivered a staggering 18 albums since his 1993 debut, deals in warped, “crackpot” country music that blends romance, smut and the Southern Gothic. Tonight, however, the Americana troubadour fails to let rip. It all feels too low-fi, perfunctory, with very little sense of show, and it’s only the presence of his charismatic collaborator David Ferguson, sounding like Johnny Cash, that really enlivens this experience.

You’re never quite sure what version of BPB you’re going to get, but tonight it’s the relaxed version, rather than the ornery one. Perhaps it’s the church environment that he keeps referring to that’s reigning in his more impish bluegrass instincts.

However, there are other highlights, including the tangy “The Mountain Low” from 1995’s excellent Viva Last Blues, a spruced-up version of 1999’s sinister  “I See a Darkness” and  the barbed poetry of  “Ease Down the Road”, which is redolent of Raymond Carver.

The maestro isn’t at his most beguiling here, but this is a vital artist who will endure long after he’s gone.