Review: Bill Callahan @ Union Chapel, 19th August 2009
Since dropping the Smog monicker for his last two records Bill Callahan seems to have found a more comfortable groove - these two most recent records sound almost carefree, free-wheeling, laid-back songs. Live, however, Callahan is still projecting a tense, nervous energy.
Callahan wanders onstage, he greets the audience with a simple "hello" and then starts to play. Throughout the show he barely connects with either the audience. There's a few mumbled "thank-you"s and an attempt to make light of some trouble with the mic stand, but for the most part Callahan just strums his guitar and sings.
There's very little physical movement either - a little marching on the spot and a half-hearted attempt at an awkward boogie at the end of second song 'Diamond Dancer', but for the most part his performance has a distant, shy coldness.
Callahan doesn't interact with his band either. He kicks off most songs with a gentle riff or a strum, his similarly distracted four-piece backing band (guitarist, drummer, cellist, violinist) react to the subtle cues and chime in on cue. But this isn't an Aerosmith gig, we're in a church for a start, and the stillness only heightens the drama and depth of Callahan's booming, bassy voice. The effect is at it's most intense when the arrrangement is uncluttered and when the band are in full flow, pummelling the short, circular grooves of Callahan's songs.
Maybe he wants his songs and lyrics to stand alone, uncluttered by the distraction of needless banter or stagecraft. But it's often difficult to discern how personal some of these songs are. "Jim Cain" is, it is claimed, a song about James M. Cain, author of "The Postman Always Rings Twice", so when Callahan sings "I used to be darker/ Then I got lighter/ Then I got dark again" - that's the closest we get to a joke.
The crowd are, of course, enormously partisan, reverential and adoring. There's about 150 songs that Callahan *could* play to an appreciative response, the only disappointment is that he only manages to offer up a set of 12. Hypnotic opener 'Our Anniversary' is a real treat and there's a delicious trio of songs from 2005's " River Ain't Too Much To Love" which is greeted by a whoop from the audience. As you'd expect the rest of the set consists of tracks from the latest album, which is no hardship, but the older Smog songs leave you with the appetite to range across his entire back catalogue, cherry-picking your favourites.
On returning to the stage for the encore, Bill asks, "Do you want 'Sycamore' or 'Cold Blooded Old Times'?". We wanted both! A great gig, but one that can only have left you wanting much, much more.
- Our Anniversary (from Supper, 2003)
- Diamond Dancer (from Woke On A Whaleheart, 2007)
- Too Many Birds (from Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, 2009)
- Bathysphere (from Wild Love, 1995)
- The Wind and the Dove (from ...Eagle, 2009)
- Eid Ma Clack Shaw (from ...Eagle, 2009)
- Say Valley Maker (from A River Ain't Too Much To Love, 2005)
- Rock Bottom Riser (from A River..., 2005)
- Let Me See the Colts (from A River..., 2005)
- Jim Cain (from ...Eagle, 2009)
- All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast (from ...Eagle, 2009)
- Encore: Cold Blooded Old Times (from Knock Knock, 1999)
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