I think I’ve seen Bill Callahan, in one guise or another, play live more than anyone else. Whilst this may mark me out as some kind of strange stalker type figure (and indeed, I did once drive from Zurich to Strasbourg, via Luxembourg, to see him play, during his “Rain On Lens” phase), you do need to consider that this is a man who has been touring for close to 20 years. And I’ve loved his music – and I use the word “love” with absolute honesty – for a good 12. Indeed, I still think that one of my truly happy moments on this planet was driving in the Taunus mountains1 on a warm summer’s evening in a borrowed car listening to “Teenage Spaceship”. When an artist has been part of your life for so long, it’s foolish to not try and catch him live every few years.
This is starting to get a little hard now. When I saw him in Strasbourg it was to about 50 people. Now, playing in the hardly small Barbican, he’s selling out a venue that comfortably seats 2000 people, with the good seats selling out quickly. After all these years, he’s getting more press than ever before and even being covered by grizzled jazz poet Gil-Scott Heron. There is the distinct possibility that the world at large is waking up to this most talented musician. As I’ve posted before, he’s probably the finest lyricist of his generation, someone whose words are so cunningly crafted that you are teasing out new meanings after years of listening, or are still gobsmacked by the same interpretation ten years later. I, for one, cannot listen to “I Was A Stranger” or “Cold Blooded Old Times” without getting shivers.
Not that he’s exactly doing much to win over new fans. There’s no flash new live show, in which he interacts with the crowd, telling jokes and stories. No video backdrop. No choir of backing singers, no string quartet, no multi-instrumentalists. No guest spots, or celebrity friends joining him onstage for a duet. Nope, just him, resplendent in a dapper white suit, joined by a permanently-seated guitarist and a drummer who ably replaced Thor by tapping away on the drums with his hands, covering them with a blanket, and carrying out all sorts of jiggery-pokery that at one point Bill turns to him, as he’s rearranging his drumkit, and drolly mutters “Whilst we’re still young….”.
This is, of course, not quite the Bill Callahan who used to wander onto a barely-lit stage, and play his already doleful songs at half-speed with his back to the crowd2, but you’re left in no doubt that he is here to sing songs, songs which have multiple layers of meaning, need to be unwrapped, need to be misunderstood in haste and unravelled at leisure. Opener “Riding For The Feeling” appears to be telling us about his spoken word tour a few years ago and touring in general (“All this leaving is neverending”), and how it made him reassess what message he was trying to put across to us, dear listeners (“I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels/
Or riding for the feeling”) but at the back of your mind, you are more than slightly concerned at the use of the word “Riding”.
Or the stunning “Baby’s Breath”, which, on unravelling, shows the secret and dark history at its core. At least, the secret I think it’s got, the tale of an abortion – all that “living grave” and “she was not a weed, she was a flower” – and although Bill himself has said it’s about the American settlers spreading across the land, having a spotlight shine on my obviously pregnant wife, and with Bill staring at us through the performance of the song, makes me suspect he’s not being entirely truthful to us here. Plus, the final words “Or sing”, growled in that quite worrying bass, also used on “My Friend”, sent shivers down our collective spines.
All of Apocalypse gets an airing during the night. “Drover” and “America” both thundered out of the traps in a way you don’t quite expect of Mr Callahan. More surprising was a beefed up “Say Valley Maker”, during which his backing band were left free to make a stunning noise. Ok, not exactly Russian Circles, but all the more shocking for the unexpected nature of the noise. There’s still that disconcerting little dance he does, too, which he showed off to us a few times during the evening.
“Say Valley Maker” shows another of his little tricks; the repeated words, like “blooms blooms blooms” and “dew dew dew”. “The Well” has that marvellous “black black black”, “Riding For The Feeling”‘s “my my my apocalypse”. A great little trick that gets you to snap to attention. Focussing is of paramount importance seeing him live; watching and hearing him recite his marvellous words close-up brings a whole new layer of clarity. With Bill, it’s all about the words. Even backed by the most sympathetic band I’ve seen him with, your brain is working ten to the dozen to glean meaning, rather than being distracted by a beautiful tune here or there. “Our Anniversary” tells its tale amongst the backdrop of a humid Southern night, all chirping crickets and singing bullfrogs.
Even the addition of harmonica didn’t spoil the atmosphere, despite Bill’s concerns that “I had a nightmare that you would all walk out when I played this”. Only “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” didn’t work; the band seemingly playing a different time signature and possibly a different song entirely. As for the rest? Superb. Wonderful. Somewhat disturbing. He’s one of the finest living singer-songwriters doing the rounds, and you are a fool to yourself if you haven’t dived deep into his sizeable back catalogue. Or seen him live.
Who are the others? Well, I’d put Sufjan Stevens and M Ward up there too, both of whom are visiting London this week. So, The Week Of American Greats it is then.
1 Without meaning to sound wanky. I lived abroad for many years.
2 See Ben Thompson’s marvellous “Seven Years Of Plenty” for a brutally apt description of his early shows.