Bill Callahan – review

The Ritz, Manchester
The lo-fi pioneer makes few concessions to showbiz, but is an artist at the peak of his songwriting power

When Bill Callahan stared out as Smog in the 1990s, his band name and poor-quality recordings made him an easy target for ridicule. Twenty years on, the same recordings are hailed as pioneering "lo-fi" and his recent 15th album, Dream River, received the sort of critical rapture most acts dream of.

Watching him is not straightforward. The artist has requested the venue bar be closed, which makes a line in opener The Sing – "The only words I said today were 'beer' and 'thank you" – particularly ironic. The gangly 47-year old American doesn't so much sing as open his lips just enough to allow his weary baritone to escape from the side of his mouth. Callahan's only concession to showbiz is a deadpan "Wunnerful to be here tonight," although at one point he seems to do a slight jogging dance with his guitar, like a parody of Hank Marvin. He can be wonderfully droll. "Dress sexy at my funeral," he intones. "For the first time in your life."

In return, his audiences get a performer at the peak of his songwriting power, a cross between Leonard Cohen and a male Carole King. With Cocteau Twins-type sound washes and inventive percussion, Callahan's beautiful songs provide stunning observations on life and death, hope and disappointment. Small Plane gloriously eulogises amateur gliding. Drover is surely the most sublime song ever written about being knocked over by a cow.

At times, the enthralling two hour performance becomes a game to spot the slivers of humour that can be found amidst the granite-faced delivery and occasional illustrative gurns. After a harmonica-blasting cover of Percy Mayfield's Please Send Me Somebody To Love, someone yells: "But we love you Bill." The audience erupt, and pop's most straight-faced man allows himself a grin.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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