Sons of Bill brought their own unique brand of cosmic indie-americana to London on Tuesday night to promote their latest album ‘Oh God Ma’am.’ The record takes its title from an encounter that the band’s drummer, Todd Wellons, had when he was propositioned by a hooker and apparently blurted out, “Oh God, ma’am!” Since then the utterance has become something of an inside joke for Sons of Bill, but at its heart the expression probably speaks to Southern charm, graciousness and restraint – and these elements were all on show at Omeara.
In a set interspersed with tracks from the latest record and also featuring favourites from the ‘Love and Logic’ and ‘Sirens’ albums, the abiding feeling at the end of their set was of a band reaching increasing levels of maturity, their songs often freighted with a degree of sadness and melancholy, but always balanced with a sense of hope.
Opening with three numbers from the new album, ‘Good Mourning (They Can’t Break You Now),’ ‘Firebird ‘85’ and ‘Green to Blue’ this trio of songs demonstrated how far they’ve come in the 12 years since their debut first drew comparisons to the Eagles, the newer songs emerging from a different sonic palette, the band opting for a broader soundscape that still has its roots in Americana, but also bears something of a debt to UK 1980s indie and Murmur era REM. The more uptempo ‘Believer/Pretender’ followed, its melodious, chiming guitar ringing out, the first of several songs to feature a superb guitar solo from Sam Wilson.
James Wilson, lead singer of Sons of Bill, announces how friendly the band had found everyone to be on the tour, the only exception being “that nasty waitress in the Toby carvery.” A restaurant chain probably better named as ‘Toby Avoided,’ it’s a reminder perhaps that overseas visitors sometimes need help when making dining choices. But when this collective can knock out a song that’s as clever, nuanced, and tuneful as ‘Brand New Paradigm’ it’s clear they’ve got something to teach us as well. A song about the tension between individual consciousness and the universe, it demonstrates how this is a group whose horizons know few bounds, and this is further reinforced when they play ‘Lost in the Cosmos’ (Song for Chris Bell)’ – a tribute to the co-founder of Big Star – a slow building ballad which is a real highlight of the evening’s performance. A song about an artist’s struggle for recognition, and one which it took Abe Wilson three years to write, it’s an apt dedication to a band who were once described as a letter sent in 1972 that didn’t arrive until the late 1980s.
The death of Chris Bell is something that clearly resonates with James Wilson, and he introduces ‘Fishing Song’ by saying: “When I was in my 20s I wrote this song and I thought it was about suicide. Now I’m in my 30s I think it’s about fishing.” But no one should trivialise a song for too long that includes lyrics such as “I want heaven and hell to disappear as I cast this line.” Probably the standout of the evening followed, the haunting and lovely ballad ‘Road to Canaan,’ with Sam Wilson taking the lead vocal role and swapping his electric guitar for a beautiful cut away acoustic Fender.
If the latest album is something of a slow burn, then that’s not a description that can be levelled at ‘Santa Ana Winds’ the opening song from the ‘Sirens’ album which closed things out tonight. A song written from the perspective of an imagined arsonist who sets the Santa Ana area of California alight it’s a pulsating anthem which fires right from the off, and the excitement it generates in the audience is palpable. We then get two encores, ‘Virginia Calling’ (“this is a song about being a redneck from Virginia”) and ‘Wasted Years’ a slowed down, but truly inspired rendition of the Iron Maiden number. It’s unusual for a cover to bring a completely new dimension to a song but this acoustic version manages precisely that. A rare feat it may be, but then this is further proof that Sons of Bill are an act who are constantly willing to push themselves in new directions, all the while challenging themselves and their loyal – but steadily growing – audience.