The 40 Watt may suggest a murky lit basement but the setting is a polished, brightly lit catacomb. The club has the perfect annoying knack fo. playing the most inappropriate Top 40. The club even has tables and casual random couches placed perfectly facing the tall stage. The atmosphere dangerously suggests an indie lounge club.
My girlfriend and I paced about in the empty unfilled space. She eventually played some pinball in the still empty room, while I unexpectedly ran into a friend from Atlanta who passionately discussed breaking into unguarded warehouses in the Atlanta area to record his music. We had a lot of time on our hands, and I promised not to drink.
Sir Richard Bishop opened with an intense manic-depressive set. He was full of bile and bravado while also obsessively taking Flamenco-style drone guitar to illogical wondrous extremities by making such explorations unfitting for a fancy Rock club. The crowd had grown at this point and Bishop was tired of playing the clever one to annoying ironic jeers.
Bill Callahan casually entered the stage with companions. In the past, he has toured with only a tambourine and a guitar and also experimenting with a traditional rock band set up. That night, his backing band comprised a lean eccentric three piece wielding violin, bass, and percussion. The percussionist often added eccentricities to bring out eccentricities, such as a colorful xylophone. A mournful violin added awe inducing emotional richness to the lyrical nuances, while the bass was steady, methodical and occasionally relentless.
Callahan is not known for his stage presence, often seen as stony or stoic. It’s as if he’s removed from the situation at hand yet directly involved in dialogue and revelatory, closing his eyes and refusing to talk to the audience. Instead he gazed upward as if trying to find the sky in an odd trance; he seemed to almost be living the songs, though from the inside.
If you look for it, comedy can be found in the tragic. Callahan’s subtle stage dynamics involve body language, which suggest a sleepy Elvis. He sneers a lot and twitches his leg, though admittedly almost completely unnoticeable. Such details are probably due to nervous habit than an attempt at sex appeal.
Callahan was immersed in moody ballads, instead of awkwardly rocking out, which he has explored on past tours. The shadings were all dark brutal country folk. He relied heavily on his recent releases like Woke on A WhaleHeart and his last Smog offering, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, although Callahan did not foray too much into the heavy arrangements of his latest.
“Diamond Dancer” was pounding, yet skeletal. The infectious, almost danceable song should have been placed towards the end of the set for sudden, impulsive drunk dancers. The set list still suggested awkwardness as this was opening night for the tour and the band seemed to search for the perfect set list and chemistry.
“River Guard” was infused with unbearable restrained despair. The song expanded like a river over its banks becoming a cinematic drone in arrangement. When Callahan sang “we are constantly on trial,” the effect seemed more pertinent as if he really was in a prison. Thudding toms sounded immense thunder. He was almost smiling when singing, “We are constantly on trial and it’s our way to be free.”
Overall, the song choices were great. Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” was all down and out regret. “Sycamore” was haunted mystery. “Let Me See the Colts” was vivid and disorienting. The nursery rhyme essence of “Day” intensified into a country stomp. The song became more childlike and playful contrasting with the dark wraith social commentary. The bassist really let loose with a “Ghost Riders in the Sky” bass line snaking like a water moccasin in a murky southern river at high blazing noon.
“Cold Hard Times” became a true country anthem, stripping Nashville to a grotesque blotted imposter clown with syphilis. The studio version was all about claustrophobia struggling with transcendence, but here the tune became all transcendence even with corny audience participation. The drummer even recreated the hand claps that are such an important part of the studio version. The crowd clapped and hooted along in frenzy and the violin sawed madly pushing shimmering catharsis.
When a lot of these songs are put together, one realizes how good a songwriter Callahan is. The lyrics have more impact and possess more emotional weight.
Callahan did the obligatory encore with zeal. He did a predictable choice, performing “Bathysphere.. In a sense, he was making full circle because this song dates to one of his earlier albums from over a decade previous. It was an appropriate rock ending before silence and ugly light filled the club once again.