Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Let me see the colts

A review of Billy C's show at the Thekla last month via Suit Yourself Magazine.

For a long time, fans have watched Bill Callahan skulk quietly at the sidelines – sometimes literally at ex-squeeze Joanna Newsom’s gigs – always threatening to break into mainstream notoriety but never quite making it, but not that he seems to mind. A self-styled lo-fi outsider, Callahan has commendably remained in the shadows even when relationships with high profile songstresses Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Newsom could have propelled him into mainstream stardom and has instead let his understated and extensive discography do the low and hushed talking.

It’s this same Maryland dark horse that greeted an audience at Thekla for a series of live dates to accompany new album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – the second recording since dropping the Smog moniker. Beside admissions to be glad to be on a boat, rather than in one of the series of churches that this tour had led him into, Callahan’s banter with the crowd was kept to almost unbearably tense minimum; the electric silence between songs providing each musically offering with spine-tingling intensity.

A reverent audience watched the silver-haired anti-hero work through a varied set, including many tracks from the impressive new album as well as past Smog classics such as Cold Blooded Old Times and The Breeze. When doe-eyed and silver-tongued support act Sophia Knapp joined Callahan for a particularly intimate rendition of The Wind And The Dove, both his words and presence gave Knapp a gravitas that her own tender but clich├ęd set had evaded.

Callahan’s signature deadpan baritone was matched by an almost disparaging expression, broken only by the often comic cries of an over enthusiastic fan. But it’s perhaps the aloofness, this guarded and disappointed persona, that gives Callahan’s tales of the natural world, rivers, birds and relationships such weight and a hint of only half-convalesced pain. Constant melodic and lyrical repetition, borrowed heavily from American country music, and a refusal to comply with verse-bridge-chorus song-writing makes for powerful listening. It is this cumulative richness, as well as an impressive ability for vivid picture making, that sees Callahan rightly celebrated as an anti-folk heavyweight. Once again, slow and steady wins the race.

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