Bill Callahan

Royal Festival Hall, London on Saturday 8 February 2014

Callahan's languid worn voice embeds itself in the crowd early on with 'Rock Bottom Riser' a song which initially sounds like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders but transcends into a song with a certain resilience and weightlessness. On record it's got a waltz like piano holding the strings together. There is no piano accompaniment tonight but the guitar playing of Mark Kenzie adds an extra fire to the track and his playing features throughout tonight's performance.

'Javelin' with its bongos and bluesy guitar riff motif sounds like the alternative cowboy’s anthem of choice, rolling along with an American drawl but with influences reaching far beyond that.

Callahan is a man of few words rarely going beyond “thank you” and sometimes that can cause a strange performer/crowd relationship especially with music of this ilk. He does, however, have a commanding stage presence with full confidence in what he and his merry band are doing on stage, when he does go beyond pleasantries he's a pretty funny and engaging character and although the instances are few and far between it endears him even more.

This isn't restricted to the stage either as on the next piece he sings "The only words I've said today are 'beer' and 'thank you'". One of the highlights of his recent 'Dream River' LP it's one of those tracks which encapsulates the brilliance of Callahan. The droll delivery with subtle changes in tone throughout with his band continually exploring nooks of space appear effortlessly brilliant but clearly take mathematical precision to perfect.

'Spring' from the same LP is driven once again by the African influenced percussion and layered guitar licks. There is an upfront animalistic sexuality about this track, not only in the lyrics "All I want to do is to make love to you with a careless mind" but with the climatic guitar playing continually thrusting towards a crescendo. Make absolutely no mistake, this is baby making music. There is an added sense of swagger to Callahan as he struts around stage at this point almost grunting the lyrics by the end.

The closer to his 'Apocolypse' album 'One Fine Morning' is as fitting a finale for anything but nestles in the middle of the set here. Delivered as usual in his conversationalist style it continues to build with his band adding a real reverb heavy discordance. The tension release dynamic is reminiscent of The Velvet Underground's 'Heroin' and proves a proper goose bump inducing moment. 

What is epically as it is on record, it is played around with and warped tonight by extremely gifted musicians, it veers off into a much more spacier jam than on record with Callahan sucking back on his harmonica and Kenzie on guitar throwing every rule out the window.

'Dress Sexy At My Funeral' is next up and proves an instant crowd pleaser for some of those familiar with Callahan's older material when he went under the moniker 'SMOG'. You get the feeling that a section of the crowd have been gasping for something a bit more linear.

'Drover' reverts back to the musical exploration that's served this gig so well tonight. Bass, guitars and percussion are rammed with purpose building to another epic crescendo, Kenzie feeding the guitar off the amp while Adam Jones verges towards combustion on drumming duties or as Callahan said after "putting the world to rights" (with their musical virtuosity). Callahan with his accompanying guitar and the bass player steady the ship and give Kenzie and Jones free reign to do their thing which they do so ridiculously well. This was the moment the gig switched from good to great.

'Small Plane' offers another rest bite, a lullaby like love story so smooth and affecting it draws you in with the sheer simplicity. A songwriter renowned for his wordplay shows that he can do wistful, cliché free love songs effortlessly. Comment of the night was delivered afterwards as Callahan provides us with a road story about Kenzie trying to recreate the plane sound on record at a gig and it "sounded like an erection going down."

He finishes with 'Winter Road', the perfect outro which he uses as a goodbye to London after two nights he improvs about his trip to the Tate - "too much abstraction for this man at the Tate."

There is a sense on record, but somehow even more so live, that nobody is creating anything like this. In a world of musical rehashing he stands out as a true pioneer creating something which stands towering, refusing to be pigeon holed, willing to be loved.

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article by: Paul Mullin

published: 12/02/2014 08:32