Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bill Callahan

It's the dancing you remember.

Bill Callahan has been making music for many years now, generally under the name of Smog (or, in an act of obfuscation typical of the man, as (smog)). He's much admired by those who know his work, but there aren't that many of them. However, the massive attention that's been paid to his current beau Joanna Newsom means that inevitably some more light is shining on his corner at the moment, and maybe his time is finally coming. There's been a change in the Callahan method, bringing a new album released under his own name, which features songs presenting a demeanour that might be described as cheerful. Fortunately this doesn't seem to have compromised the quality of his work, so we take ourselves to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear how this newly lighter mood transfers to the stage.

Last time I saw him he was on his own with his guitar, and although this time he's brought a band with him, all the songs at their core retain that aesthetic. Although he's linked with the "lo-fi" movement, that label doesn't really do him justice. His sound might broadly be described as "countrified Velvet underground", but he seems to draw from a deeper and older well, the same feel you get when you listen to old scratchy blues records from before the war, of something rooted in an ancient past. He's not one for stage banter, his quiet demeanour contrasting incongruously with an audience that applauds the opening bars of most of the songs in the way you might expect at a Barry Manilow concert (incidentally, this audience seemed to spend an awful lot of time standing up and going to the bar, although maybe it just seems more obvious because it's a seated venue with the bar outside the hall?). He stands upright and rigid, strumming his guitar and intoning his lyrics, deadpan and impassive. Which makes it all the more strange, his penchant for suddenly twitching, his legs writing and kicking occasionally, rather in the manner of a slow-motion Elvis as impersonated by Max Wall. The music is hypnotic, soulful, occasionally terrifying in its intensity, and seems utterly at odds with these curious movements. And yet afterwards, on long reflection on what I've seen and heard, it comes to seem absolutely right, the man's movements as singular as his music.

He doesn't say much to us, although at one point he does announce, "I feel good tonight". And it seems a simple, honest thing to say, that at the same time suggests something more profound, merely alluded to.

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