Review: Bill Callahan at the Oriental, 11/25/13
If you show up to a Bill Callahan show expecting a whiskey-soaked rager, you shall be disappointed. Last night's gig at the Oriental was proof positive of that. The audience took their seats, and Callahan -- standing near the back of the stage, as if to even further minimize his profile -- sang some of the tenderest, weirdest folk(ish) songs this side of Leonard Cohen. The word "austere" may have shown up in every concert review ever written about a Bill Callahan gig. Add this one to the pile.
Callahan and the band -- a couple electric guitars, drums, and bass -- appeared on the Oriental's massive stage and quickly led into "White Light/White Heat." The tribute to Lou Reed seemed perfect for the crowd, well-timed, and more than anything, perfectly executed. Callahan's voice is made for songs like this. He and Reed share a similar style, speak-singing in a baritone which, if you sang anything like them, would instantly incite accusations of fraud.
Dedication completed, the set proper commenced with "Javelin Unlanding." Callahan and friends nailed it, playing the song virtually note for note as it appears on Dream River. Following that, came a flurry of newer songs -- "The Sing," "Summer Painter," "Too Many Birds" -- and nary a whiff of his old self. Which is to say, Callahan seemed to be actually having a good time.
This was the last show of the tour. Maybe the training wheels had come off already and the bandmembers, thinking of going home to relax in the bathtub, weren't into giving a damn anymore. Good for us, since the quiet, hyper-poetic quality of Callahan's music can be a tough slog for concertgoers. I saw him in Atlanta ten years ago and nearly fell asleep. And I love the guy's music.
There were Tejano nuances throughout the set. A woodblock here, a Calexico soundalike riff there, and of course Callahan's rhinestone jacket and bolo tie adding even more to the aesthetic. "America!" (from 2011's Apocalypse) was one example of this, and proved to be one of the most upbeat -- you couldn't say "raucous" -- tunes of the night.
The latter part of the set was dominated by the slow jams that have dominated his catalog. "Drover" was a highlight, as was the impeccable "Say Valley Maker." The evening ended on a down note (as do all of Callahan's albums) with "Sycamore." There was no encore. Callahan didn't thank the crowd. He just disappeared. Austere, right?
Earlier in the evening, the Howling Hex, Callahan's longtime label mates at indie superlabel Drag City, played a set. Frontman Neil Hagerty's career began with Pussy Galore, and while he may have begun playing fairly straightforward music, at this point, thirty years on, he's thrown all signs of convention out the door.
Personal Bias: I first heard of Callahan's ex-moniker Smog in 1999 when perusing new stuff at a record store. I bought Knock Knock because it was the funniest album cover I'd ever seen, and I haven't regretted the purchase since.
Random Note: Some girls, between songs, shouted "Dress Sexy at My Funeral!" -- a request Callahan ignored.
By the Way: Callahan's ex-girlfriend Chan Marshall played the Gothic last weekend.
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