all words: Philip Runco
all photos: Julian Vu
Bill Callahan is not a man of unnecessary words. He once sang, “I started telling the story without knowing the end,” but we both know that’s a load of shit: Callahan is a songwriter in such control of his craft that it’s near impossible to imagine him not knowing exactly how a story is going to end, and the minimum words it will require him to get there.
This isn’t to suggest he’s a man of few words; just that he knows how to distill a song to its essence, and in doing so, realize the fullest potential of each line, each repetition, each sound.
Such economy transfers to his live show, where Callahan shows little interest in courteous bullshit. There was minimal interaction between the singer and the sold-out audience Wednesday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel. Anyone expecting some kind of revelatory insight was not rewarded with any VH1 Storytelling. Shouted song requests went unacknowledged. Callahan’s a prickly fellow, though not an ungracious one: he did briefly thank the crowd for its attendance at several points in the show.
“Someone has a strong perfume or cologne on,” he shared with the room in the night’s one moment of candor. His voice low and smoky, he purred, “It’s turning me on.” He paused an instant to think about the implications of what he had said: “I hope it’s perfume.” The crowd, which ate out of Callahan’s hand in reverent silence for the whole performance, let out a big laugh, I hope knowing that a better piece of banter – from anyone – won’t be coming its way any time soon.
Ultimately, Callahan doesn’t have to do much talking. He sits on a catalogue of songs – released as Smog through 2005, and subsequently under his own name – that speaks for itself. And watching him on Wednesday, in a suave and ridiculous seersucker suit, it was hard not think that at a sprite 45, he’s somehow just hitting his peak.
His bellowing baritone has grown richer and more commanding, and the songs he’s created on this year’s often outstanding Apocalypse capitalize on this, scaling back the folksy country and baroque ornamentation of previous records and casting Callahan into a sparse landscape as utilitarian in its instrumentation as his word selection.
His performance at Rock and Roll Hotel took this development a step further. The violin and cello accompaniment of previous tours were left behind, and nowhere to be found were the piano and flute that flesh out Apocalypse. Instead, Callahan relied primarily on two of Apocalypse’s players, Matt Kinsey and Neal Morgan (on electric guitar and drums, respectively), and his acoustic guitar. A harmonica was strapped onto Callahan’s neck rack on occasion, but he employed it sparingly.
For a small line-up, the trio made a lot of noise, reimagining older songs with such fullness as to make you forget what they were lacking. Take “Too Many Birds”, a stunning highlight of 2007’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. On record, the song is prodded along by a Wurlitzer, filled out by piano, and lifted by gorgeous swoops of violin – all elements absent on this night. Yet the song remained as dynamic and anthemic as you could hope, animated largely by Kinsey’s guitar, which seemed to consolidate all the aforementioned roles into one instrument.
The three also breathed added life into Apocalypse’s cuts. The twists and curves of the restless “Baby’s Breath” were ratcheted up with a greater sense of tension, Morgan laying down a thumping beat as Callahan cryptically deadpanned, “It was agreed / It was agreed.” Morgan brought a near tribal percussive force later to the stampede of “Drover”, which built to a squealing finale. It would not be the last. In fact, as the night progressed, the songs grew longer and rowdier, culminating in an epic 16-minute medley of “Say Valley Maker” and “Let Me See the Colts”, and, immediately after, the roadhouse rock of set closer “The Well”.
The only problem with this panoramic grandeur – if there is one – is that it can take the wind out of the smaller, more personal material that makes up a lot of Smog’s albums. Midway through the set, Callahan revisited 2003’s “Our Anniversary”, a sweet song that shares a common space with the wry, offbeat country of late-period Silver Jews. While I’m certainly not opposed to some easygoing twang, the results were slightly underwhelming; the song just didn’t quite jive with the night’s foreboding mood.
Amplifying the contrast was that the song had been preceded by Apocalypse’s “America!”, Callahan’s rough-and-tumble love/hate letter to the States. Hearing the audience’s enthusiastic response, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a song that’s so quickly moved from an album’s divisive sticking point to fan favorite. (Having a kickass video doesn’t hurt, I suppose.)
“Everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention,” Callahan sang towards its stomping close. Lucky for us that’s not an immunity Callahan claims for himself, at least in song.