This is the first time I saw Billy the Kid: It's Mid-July and the air conditioner at Toronto Lee's Palace is broken. The show is sold -out and I'm leaning on the stage with the capacity crowd behind me. We're sweaty and dehydrated. The air is getting hard to breathe, but nobody's complaining. Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls are midway through their set and the band is barely audible amongst the chorus of singing fans, laughter, and applause. The energy in the venue is incredible. Even in the heat everyone can recognize that the show tonight is something special.
As another song winds down, the Sleeping Souls leave the stage and Frank is left on his lonesome with an acoustic guitar. I've seen him play nearly a dozen times before, and know that this is the cue to slow things down: he'll belt out a ballad or two, maybe even take a request, or play a cover. On another night I'd be inclined to raise a lighter, but with my shirt sticking to my chest and the collected musk of the audience filling my nose, I decide it's a safer to whistle. Frank nods and then gets the cheap pop from the crowd by proclaiming his love for Neil Young. We're Canadian. We all love Neil Young, too.
It's at that point that he brings Billy the Kid onto the stage. She's petite and covered in tattoos. Dressed like the rest of us with heavy eyeliner, and a black band t-shirt. The two banter back and forth for some time, making jokes and casual conversation, as the crowd hangs on their every word. It's all going well enough, but I can't help thinking that Billy seems nervous. She shuffles her feet back and forth and doesn't seem to know where to put her hands. She's over annunciating in the way that I over annunciate when I'm unsure of what I'm saying and smiles a little too quickly as someone from the audience lets our a loud and prolonged woo. Eventually the banter trails off, Frank starts strumming some chords, and Billy begins to sing. Like that the nervousness is gone. It's like everything in the room is gone, the heat, the sweat, all of it's gone expect for the song. For the first time in the night the crowd quiets down and actually listens. As the duet finishes up and Billy leaves the stage and the place erupts, twice as loud as they had been before.
The gig that night caught the attention of Frank Turner's record label Xtra Mile who offered to record Billy's latest full length album, along with Frank lending his talents as producer. This September sees the release of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades which British Music magazine NME is describing as "Lydia Loveless fronting 59-Sound era Gaslight Anthem."
The success has been a lot time coming for Billy the Kid, whose real name is Billy Pettinger. The Vancouver native has been playing in punk bands since the age of sixteen, traveling across the world and singing songs for absolutely anyone who would listen. While the switch from punk rock to singer-songwriter is almost cliche at this point, for Billy the transition was a by-product of her band, BIlly and the Lost Boys, dissolving and rehearsal halls becoming unaffordable. If she wanted to keep making music, she was going to have to do it herself.
This DIY attitude lead to doubling down on self-booked, self-promoted, performances across North America and crowd-funding campaigns to record her own music. The hard work was noted by Chuck Ragan, lion-voiced singer of the legendary Hot Water Music, who invited her to play select dates on the Revival tour and Raine Maida, frontman of Canadian Alt Rockers Our Lady Peace, who served as producer on several songs for Billy's solo efforts.
Still, working independently is difficult. There were times where she struggled to make ends meat and wondered whether or not the personal sacrifices had been worth it. While friends were getting married and buying houses, and other friends were appearing on television and in magazines, she continued to struggle along, grinding her nose, with nothing but the hope that everything would turn out.
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades covers a lot of ground thematically, and while the songs vary in tempo and tone, it's undeniable that among the folk-punk, power pop, and roots country is all the struggle that's gotten Billy to this point. It's an intense and personal album, equal parts funny and heartbreaking, that chronicles the ups and downs of working for your art.
At its best Horseshoes & Hand Grenades feels like a conversation you're too afraid to have with a lover or friend. The songs are emblematic of that stage of life where you're not quite where you've been and you're not exactly sure where you're going next. This is is most apparent on the discs standout tracks "Phone Bills" , a raw rock number about the one who got away, and "This Sure as Hell Ain't My Life", a duet with Frank Turner that chronicles a married couple on the brink of calling it quits.
Since that first night I've had the pleasure of seeing Billy the Kid play a number of shows, sometimes in front of thousands of people, sometimes in front of dozens. She's consistently won over crowds with her honest storytelling and haunting drawl, gaining a steady and loyal fan base among the main roads she's traveled. With Horseshoes & Hand Grenades she's ready to make the leap from folk rocks best kept secret to their latest darling.
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Posted Feb. 3, 2014, 9:33 p.m.
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