Photo: Nina West
“You need to go to Scream Along with Billy,” someone will tell you at some point when you announce that you’re going to be in Provincetown. At least it's what a friend told me upon my arrival by ferry then taxi in May. I asked him what it was, and he said it was best going in blind.
There’s a certain charm to going into an event as paradoxically magisterial and intimate as Scream Along at the Grotta Bar beneath Local 181. At first, it appears relatively sparse, but the piano that’s set up adjacent to the modest stage is bedecked with glowing Halloween lights and out comes Mister Billy Hough wearing a Warhollian wig, as Hilton Als once phrased it. He looks kind of like Billy Idol’s long lost brother. And on my first night, he performed songs from Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope album. He broke my heart when he performed “Samson.”
That’s the curious quality to Scream Along with Billy — which, after 10 seasons, is closing this summer — it's a show he does once (or twice) a week with his best friend Sue Goldberg on bass, in which they cover albums. In between songs, he rambles nonchalantly to his audience, and then allows the mounting emotion from each track and monologue-esque interlude to be quietly, or even loudly, devastating. Scream Along, in its 10 years, has become somewhat of a staple or cult success in what is normally a small, homonormative tourist town. After working the punk circuit with the GarageDogs, the band he has with his brothers Paul and Matt, for a decade and stumbling into Lucinda Williams-esque hard times, Hough arrived Provincetown in 2005 and, despite already nabbing a gig as a sing along pianist at the Gifford House Inn, conjured a magic act that consisted of “the wig, the theme song, and Sue.” Sue, in a similar emotional disposition at the time, and he began to craft what was at first a deliciously cynical act, Hough chuckling that the first they picked, including Pink Floyd’s The Wall, were done “out of irony.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Scream Along with Billy — “It’s the only place in PTown where you won’t hear Madonna,” he quips — such an exciting show each week. No doubt it’s due to the collaboration between Hough and Goldberg, able to imbue their distinctive sound in even the most recognizable songs, albums, and artists’ discographies, not least of all Velvet Underground, the Beatles, Lou Reed, My Chemical Romance, Patti Smith, and The Strokes. Is there a method to his madness? “You know, we made a deal with each other to not analyze it, because we could go on and on forever. So we just do it,” Billy, a punk aficionado and self-described nerd, says earnestly. That seems to work. When they covered Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Billy remarks, “people responded to it so huge. People commented on the fact that it was so interesting to hear those songs sung by a man. And that had never even crossed my mind.” The roughhewn quality of his voice is certainly appealing, adding a kind of melancholic anguish to songs whose original vocalists only touch the surface, where Billy can cut deep.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Billy says of the improvisatory nature of the show. “It can get a little dark and scary sometimes. We have every once in a while what we’ll call A Very Special Episode of Scream Along with Billy, and it gets really dark, and to have Sue there makes it a little easier on the audience. We don’t make ourselves easy to love.” And yet, people do. Even when they cover “obscure shit” and some “dissonant, experimental records” (in addition to Eminem), Hough says “the audience has totally hung in there with us the whole time.”
Doing an album a week is kind of insane, but the Grotta is consistently filled – and when the summer season gets to be in full swing, packed – with a diverse audience. From townie queers to the likes of John Waters and Michael Cunningham, Scream Along is what the hipsters might think of as the “cool place to be”. Ironic, since Billy has been searching to be cool for an extended period of his life. When moving to New Orleans in the ‘90s, his desire to join the punk rock group Surrender Dorothy was fueled by a desire for coolness, and at first hindered by his lack of familiarity with what the boys in the band listened to (Sonic Youth, The Stooges, etc.) But he sat down and studied “like a total nerd.” “I always wanted to be cool; I always wanted to I always wanted to, like, like the records and know the bands.” Yet, every time Billy is up on stage, he is cool. Maybe without meaning to, as he’s stopped caring about “trying to impress people anymore” and his improvisational prattle is incorrectly perceived as scripted untruths (“Sometimes I wonder why I don’t get laid anymore,” Billy, who identifies as gay, jokes. “And a friend will go, ‘Have you seen your last show?’”), but the passion and sound and fury that exudes from his stage presence is exactly that: cool.
Hough can be seen in Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind this September with Richard Gere and at Joe’s Pub in New York City doing conceptual musicals on David Lynch, Robert Altman, and John Waters, but as far as the legacy of Scream Along is concerned, he notes this: “I think that it’s inevitable that because Scream Along has been here two nights a week for ten years, even though I think people love it, and they come religiously, and they’ve been very supportive, it’s hard not to take it for granted a little bit, because it’s always been there. I am aware, and so is Sue, that almost nobody gets the kind of autonomy we have had, and I feel confident that we have absolutely exploited that to the fullest extent. I don’t think there’s going to be anything left that we wish we had done,” he says. “Stick to your guns. We were given a huge gift and we fuckin’ took it to the moon. It’s just meant a lot to us, it’s meant a lot to the audience, so we’re gonna pinch that one off and let it kind of coast and see what happens And I feel really good about that, which is one of the reasons why I wanna kill it before it gets lame.” No need to worry. This was the coolest ride you could have taken this town on.