Live Review: Bill Callahan at D.C.’s Rock N Roll Hotel (7/13)

If you’re wondering whether or not Bill Callahan is a badass, then quit while you’re ahead. He’s quite possibly the definition. Following a rare and unique performance by 60’s folk obscurity Ed Askew, Bill Callahan unremorsefully showed up onstage at DC’s sold out Rock and Roll Hotel 15 minutes late of schedule. The dude looked pretty damn sharp for a show where photography was prohibited, too (sorry, folks). Smooth-walking on stage in a mob-cut seersucker suit and freshly shined derbies, blank-faced and stoic, Callahan had little to say. But, it was clear that’s not what he came there to do.

From the moment his smoky baritone filled the air with the concurrent strums of his six nylon strings on My Apocalypse‘s “Riding for the Feeling”, it was immediately clear that this would be the kind of show you spend years hoping to chance upon–an intimate, thought provoking, awe-inspiring display of determined and hauntingly confident songcraft, with a backing band set on injecting the songs with the rich atmospheres and perplexing rhythms they deserve. Along with Callahan’s signature low-range croon (think Johnny Cash’s deranged son), warbly electric guitar drenched in delay, mystifying, ornate percussion, and hypnotic acoustic strums were all that this trio needed to make a lasting impression.

Though I can’t speak from experience, I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to be the one on the other end of Callahan’s murderous stare. His eyes seem to possess a sort of ghostly spirit only somebody who writes the sort of music Callahan writes could. And as he sings, they seem set on something way back in the club’s darkness, something farther than even the exit doors stand. As his deeply affecting songs fill the space with a dark, brooding country atmosphere, Callahan is always wholly impenetrable. His mouth twists, wilts, and molds to his words, but his face never displays much emotion. A smile from the guy would probably form a black hole. Even as he tip-toes and shimmies backwards (his version of letting loose mid-song) or attempts to address the crowd with a thank you, or even a reluctant bit of banter, he seems completely isolated, comfortably seated behind a curtain of mystique.

But his reserved demeanor suits the enigmatic music he plays and the mysteriously prolific career he’s been working on for over 20 years. Callahan’s music sounds like it arrives from crackling radio heard from a passing by freight train, with eerie swells and lingering noise flickering in and out. All this behind a commanding, deep, full bodied voice singing about horses, bodies of water, birds, heartbreak, and gambling. The stuff sounds even better, and creepier, live, since you can really follow Callahan through the alleys his free-flowing, hypnotic, even meditative song structures lead you down. He’ll play the same tantalizing pull-offs incessantly for five minutes, his deep vocals drawing you into his gloomy southern imagery, while his guitarist throws as many layers of soaring, sometimes dissonant, tube-warmth into the mix as he can. Then there are the reserved, meticulous, subtle, but occasionally turbulent drums.  The three players can really build a lot of sonic space with seemingly very little. Throughout the set, things occasionally got pretty loud, and pretty frenzied.

The thunderous climax during set highlight among highlights “Drover”, for instance, sounded like a barn on fire, a derailed train, murder in cold blood, like the soundtrack to a Faulkner novel at its most grueling scene. It was a hair-raising performance culminating in a harsh wall of noise that pretty much encapsulated everything that’s good about Americana and Noise rock at the exact same time. It was just one of many tunes to explode into a dense Americana upsurge.

Aside from the well-received new material, from May’s My Apocalypse, Callahan touched on all of the records released under his own name, in addition to some of the highlights from the Smog catalog, including a three-song venture into 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much To Love. Following the main set, Callahan played one of the first “true encores” I have ever witnessed, fans applauding and cheering for close to five minutes, with added encouragement from the sound guy, until the band emerged for a laid-back, two-song encore.

I have no earthly clue where Callahan has been or what he has seen in his 45 years, but I’m sure as hell glad I didn’t have to go there with him to reap the benefits of his frightening wanderings. When all is said and done, this performance will be a personal new benchmark for dark folk music.

Riding for the Feeling
Baby’s Breath
Eid Ma Clack Shaw
Honeymoon Child
Universal Applicant
Our Anniversary
Too Many Birds
Say Valley Maker
Let Me See the Colts
The Well

River Guard


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