Those unfamiliar with Bill Callahan’s extensive songbook may think he’s enslaved to the influence of Leonard Cohen: a sobering solo performer, wearing a white suit, playing a nylon-stringed guitar and singing in a deep, rich baritone. However, his fusion of minor key folk and country and his lyrics, which lean on everything from Zen Buddhist teachings to metaphysical imagery, are all shot through with his uniquely wry and gentle humor.
Opening with ‘The Wind And The Dove’, the intense silence is palpable. Flanked by Neal Morgan on drums and Matt Kinsey on guitar, the arrangements are subtle and unobtrusive and Kinsey’s playing captures the character of the rich arrangements of the original studio version of the song. Following with ‘Riding For The Feeling’ and ‘Baby’s Breath’, the tempo of the songs feel too similar, though ‘Drover’, an album highlight from this year’s Apocalypse, shifts the tempo up a gear and allows the three musicians to loosen up and improvise, giving the song a Scott Walker-esque scope. This is swiftly followed by ‘America’, an ironic, State Of The Nation address, full of Callahan’s tongue-in-cheek humor and possibly one of the few of his songs with a danceable beat. Kinsey lets loose on the guitar and Morgan plays his drum kit as if it were a set of bongos, with Callahan gently whispering “America” repeatedly. A highlight of the night and no doubt a staple of future set lists.
Songs from Callahan’s previous incarnation, Smog, are played to the delight of many. Highlights from Smog’s 2005 masterpiece, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, go down a treat, particularly ‘Say Valley Maker’ – the haunting backing vocals even eliciting harmonies from the audience. Most surprising, however, is how comfortable Callahan is on stage. The quiet, introverted performer of old, who would never acknowledge his audience, is but a memory. Tonight, Callahan offers sincere thanks after each round of applause and initiates banter with members of the audience. And while Callahan’s latest offering may not cross over beyond his cult of devoted fans, he’s developing as a songwriter and as a performer at a more rapid pace than many of his contemporaries.