In contrast to a career spanning two decades and over a dozen recorded albums – including those as his earlier moniker Smog – to his name, Bill Callahan is a man of surprising few words onstage. It’s forgivable however, as captured in his dry wit and deep seated vocal wisdom are enough tales of surrealist simplicity to make up. From wells and water, anniversaries, cattle droves, solemn goodbyes and the central topic of this year’s release: America the great…or perhaps not so great as Apocalypse’s third track satirises.
Playing to a sold out audience at London’s Barbican theatre the highly esteemed Callahan, clad in an off-white suit, was joined onstage by Neal Morgan (of the Joanna Newsom touring band) on drums, and Matt Kinsey on electric guitar. Offering up a generous selection of lo-fi folk songs from his most recent solo recording Apocalypse as well as a handful of favourites from Smog release River Ain’t Too Much to Love; the almost two hour set was dashed with tastefully reverb drenched interjections from Kinsey, while Morgan’s drumming capability, from the intricate brushed drumming on ‘Our Anniversary’ to the flailing limbs employed for the ruckus jiving conclusion of ‘America!’ exposed talents as honourable as the main man’s own.
Beginning with the goodbyes of ‘Riding for the Feeling’ (“It’s never easy to say goodbye/To the faces/So rarely do we see another one”), and ending somewhat aptly towards the close with ‘Jim Cain’s, “telling [of] the story without knowing the end”, which certainly won the largest cheers of the evening, Callahan’s performance exposed the emotional and musical depth of his back catalogue. Despite waning in moments at mid points during the set and with his vocal delivery, while his defining feature, also so metered that it could be conveyed to an unfamiliar listener as a disinterest in his own work, the set flitted between unflourished versions of ‘Let Me See the Colts’ and the more musically intense ‘Say Valley Maker’; which extended into a lyricless void in need of no words to mark its successes. Thankfully for Callahan; Kinsey and Morgan’s colourings of the scenic sketches he provided allowed tracks like ‘Drover’, though missing the quivering Celtic string arrangements, to win the audience over all the same.
‘America!’ was a smirking standout with Neal Morgan hammering away bare handed at symbols and drums, while Callahan so unbiasedly projected lyrics whose message spoke single handed: “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American/America!/Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention”. A cult singer songwriter of our generation, who here, proved why.
Review by Melanie McGovern