Leaving Us Wanting More Emmett Kelly Guitar; Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and the Cairo Gang

Notes on Emmett Kelly, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, The Cairo Gang, The Salvation Army, Old Male High School, and Neil Young

It was obvious as soon as they took the stage that something special was about to occur. Of course, there was Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and his frenetic physical antics as he struggled to get comfortable on stage, but the quiet, skinny guy beside him holding his acoustic guitar close to his chest demanded my attention as I did not know him. At least I had never seen him before. I didn't know what he could do. But I did know what our Billy Boy was capable of. Well, as you must have known, they broke into song and about six songs later they quit. It was a lovely experience, quite intimate when I think about it, up close and personal two rows in front of the stage in an old, but still quaint theater nestled inside the Old Male High School now owned by the Salvation Army of Louisville, KY. It was a benefit to support the Salvation Army Culinary School that trains homeless people the art of working in a kitchen so they can get at least a food prep job in a decent kitchen. Pretty cool, but this article isn't about the good work the Salvation Army is doing but rather it is about this seeming kid by the name of Emmett Kelly. He can fucking play guitar. And sing. I learned later that he is the front man for The Cairo Gang, and hence, the man behind all that fine guitar playing on the new Bonnie 'Prince' Billy record The Wonder Show of the World .

Emmett Kelly enabled, and that is the correct word I want here, enabled , because that is what he did in the most artistic of ways, he enabled Bonnie to warble and dance as I have never seen him warble and dance before. Emmett is so talented and confident with his guitar and his finer capabilities that it set Bonnie free to be himself, that being the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy character he plays when he isn't carrying on in his own skin and hauling his own personal baggage with that given birth name of Will Oldham. The chemistry between these two men on stage was almost homoerotic in the sense that they connected so emotionally and professionally they became one voice, and that voice was beautifully rendered in tandem with the guitar and background vocals of Emmett Kelly. And when the song was over there was a smile for each other, a happiness in their craft I hadn't seen ever in my lifetime of fifty-six years. Maybe, maybe I saw it once before in the live concert of the recording of Neil Young's Unplugged when at one special point in the show Neil acknowledged his sister Peggy, and their moment together in that moment was pretty special too. But this was a whole show, the entire six or seven songs they shared from the new album with us on that old wooden stage left over when Male decided to go south of downtown and build a shitty new school instead of taking care of what they had. But the lucky ones are the Culinary School and The Salvation Army which can use that space for future great and meaningful things.

I recently went on record in a previous article written about Will Oldham that this new record of his, The Wonder Show of the World , is his most personally beautiful and ambitious of all his other work, and though perhaps not the favorite of the loyal masses, the new record showcases the talented voice of Will Oldham when in the past that wasn't exactly what he was aiming for, to be known to have a great voice. Most of the concert at The Old Male High School was performed with Emmett on guitar and voice with Bonnie exclusively on voice with a rare melodica mouth organ being played or wrestled into his back pocket. Of course, Billy was dancing too, his version of dance that is, haphazard, but appropriate, performance art; spontaneous combustion. But none of this fantastical and brilliant show would have been possible without the gifted and perfect Emmett Kelly at his side. It is my hope we see more of Emmett and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy together, but history shows that Billy moves on, and we will get another incarnation whether we like it or not. All praise to Emmett. Carry on.

Emmett Kelly

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy & The Cairo Gang

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy & The Cairo Gang


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