The West of England is under water. I arrive into Bristol and into a brutal and unrelenting rain. The sky is filthy, the pavements diluvial and the grey-brown river swollen. I step off the train and am soaked within a minute. On Victoria Street a dead rat dams the gutter. The last time Bill Callahan was in town he was promoting 2011’s Apocalypse. Today he could be forgiven for thinking that the end times have actually arrived.
Although he fittingly plays a good deal of material from that excellent album tonight, he begins a lengthy set with a potent one-two from last year’s equally fine Dream River. The Sing sees Callahan at his most confessional. It is a minimal rendering compared with the album version, guitarist Matt Kinsey making up for the absent violins. But it is Javelin Unlanding that that sees the evening settle into a theme, of sorts. This and Ride My Arrow (which comes later on the set) exemplify a quietly masculine side of Callahan’s character, restrained yet forceful, backed up by simple hand drums and a propulsive guitar motif.
Always a master of pleasing, deceptively plain symbolism, Callahan has gone further in his recent work. The rivers, eagles and horses of his nature interact with a wider world and an uncertain future. In songs like Ride My Arrow and Javelin Unlanding the possibility of apocalypse is overtaken by the certainty of male fertility and regrowth. These ideas come together with their greatest purpose in Spring, a centrepiece of tonight’s show. ‘All I want to do is make love to you/In the fertile dirt,’ he sings, and it sounds like a challenge to death itself. The guitar creeps along on a single noisy note, and all the while Callahan shuffle-dances like a half-shy boy at a school disco.
We are treated to a couple of old favourites: Dress Sexy At My Funeral, from Smog’s Dongs Of Sevotion is particularly well-received, while Jim Cain, already a great song, benefits lyrically from distance. It has become a kind of calling card and potted autobiography rolled into one; its sentiments could be extracted and applied to any small snippet of Callahan’s career, or to that career as a whole.
Amongst the highlights of the new material is Summer Painter, a mini disaster epic, biblical in tone, pagan in presentation, in which an enigmatic and morally ambiguous narrator observes the fallout of a world-shatteringly destructive hurricane. A particularly pertinent song for post-Katrina America, it is also incredibly personal. The line ‘I guess I got my rainy day,’ delivered in the trademark Callahan deadpan while electric guitars squall and thunder around him, puts the current weather conditions into perspective.
Bristol’s St George’s, a former church, has some of the best acoustics you are likely to find. This really comes across in the quieter and roomier songs. Callahan’s voice is capable of impressive depth and warmth, qualities that come to the fore in songs like Seagull, Winter Road and One Fine Morning. The latter, one of the most beautiful and hopeful songs from Apocalypse, is given a hushed reworking, the guitars becoming pinpricks as the drums syncopate and the song finally falters to near-nothing, barely existing as a song at all, before restarting its own heart and disappearing into the distance. Lyrically it provides a link between the two most recent albums, and as such sums up the evening as a whole. By juxtaposing these two records Callahan has shown that they exist as companion pieces, and that his massive, subtly constructed universe exists on its own, over and above the capabilities of most other songwriters. And it’s got to be worth braving the rain for that.
Review by: Thomas Blake