Bill Callahan review – from cult figure to force of nature

Hoxton Hall, London
The hypnotic singer-songwriter formerly known as Smog strips his mainly old songs back to their bare bones

In a venue this bijou, not only can you hear Bill Callahan’s bone-dry asides, you can see the folds on his brow in the harsh white spotlight. Two decades of screwing up his forehead, emphasising one phrase over another, has left the odd plough line around the American singer-songwriter’s uncompromising gaze.

“Every breath, death-defying,” Callahan sings on River Guard, weighing out the tale of a compassionate prison officer with an authority that has multiplied exponentially since the 1999 release of his Knock Knock album, when Callahan still recorded as Smog. Then he was a cult DIY concern with sometimes creepy takes on characters and relationships. Ex-Con, another Smog tune Callahan still has time for tonight, imagines kidnapping a child from a shop.

Now, though, thanks to a series of albums under his own name, Callahan has acquired a new stature – akin to that of an American metaphysical nature poet – and music to match. Callahan’s persistent, rhythmic acoustic playing is offset tonight by electric guitarist Matt Kinsey, who provides textures without cliche. When Callahan mentions rivers, as he very often does, Kinsey could so easily go “whoosh” on the effects pedals. Instead, their interplay consists of a groan or a pizzicato nibble, as on Ride My Arrow, a standout of 2013’s Dream River album.

Drover could find Kinsey mimicking the lowing of the song’s cattle, but he sidesteps the impulse. On Spring, a rush of blood to the nether regions is handled with controlled abandon. “All I want to do is make love to you in the fertile dirt,” croons Callahan, deadpan, as the atmospherics turn carnal without crudity.

With the value of recorded music arguably wiped out by the internet, the point of all this jazz, so to speak, now lies predominantly in its live performance. And if securing proximity to your idol fetches top dollar in arenas, then seeing an intense great like Callahan hold a few dozen people in the palm of his hand in a tiny, lozenge-shaped hall is shiver-inducing. Last time he toured the UK in 2014, chaperoning Dream River, Callahan was filling well-appointed concert venues. Now, aged 50, married, and with a young son, he has taken to playing residencies and matinees. There was one in New York last year, followed by a short tour of small northern California towns in February. Another residency in Melbourne, Australia, at the end of the month follows these six sold-out performances; he’s back in September to headline End of the Road festival.

For most other artists, this spate of activity, in this time frame, would signal new material to road test. Fans are champing at the bit to hear what effect domesticity and fatherhood might have on the man’s oeuvre – other than his adoption of espadrilles. Tonight’s set provides scant clues to a new album, however. Aside from his well-chosen throwbacks – there’s also Bathysphere, an iridescent pearl from 1995 – these songs are drawn from the last three albums, with one significant exception.

In the encore, we get In the Pines, Callahan’s version of the traditional played by Bob Dylan, Leadbelly and Nirvana, among many others. Halfway through the main set, however, Callahan unfurls a spare version of another traditional song – one he’s not well known for playing. Known variously as Matty Groves, or sometimes as Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard (it’s Child Ballad 81, folklorists), it tells the tale of a lustful tryst that ends in the death of the lovers at the hand of the cuckolded lord.

Most in the UK would probably know the plot from Fairport Convention’s rendition on Liege & Lief. Callahan’s take follows both a different melody and alternative wording, and is pared back to the bare minimum of sound: Callahan’s offhand strum and parsimonious vocal. When Lord Daniel says to Matty Groves that he won’t kill a naked man, Callahan almost smiles. When Groves and Daniel lock swords, Kinsey’s electric guitar actually seems to draw breath.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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