Bill Callahan is like a drug. You start listening to him, concentrating on his every note, every side sneer, every nod to his bandmates, but before you know it you’re off in some far away land. You might be daydreaming about that deserted beach you once walked along, or that nice guy you met in a bar. You might not be thinking of anything. Then you come back, and you realise you’re still in the Royal Festival Hall and this musical magician is still playing in front of you. It’s not a dream after all.
We’re not talking some kind of, “Ooh, Prince secret show, I must be dreaming,” thing here (What, like this one? Ed). This is trance-like wonder, hypnotic euphoria. Callahan is a master at this serene, droll beauty. He uses what appears to be the minimum of effort and the finest musicians to create a show so captivating that you’re emotionally exhausted at the end of it.
He plays two nights at the Royal Festival Hall, changing his set for the few who decided to see them both – as Clash did. The skeleton is the same over both the two-hour performances – most of his latest record ‘Dream River’ (review) is aired, with a peppering of old solo songs, Smog tracks and a cover or two.
Night one sees ‘Jim Cain’, ‘The Wind And The Dove’ and ‘Too Many Birds’ from his 2009 LP ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ sit alongside his newest material, and these are swapped for a more Smog-heavy setlist on night two, including the despairingly beautiful ‘Rock Bottom Riser’, from 2005’s ‘A River Ain’t Much To Love’. Both nights witness huge applause for the Smog classic ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’, dating from 2000 and delivered with tenderness and a raised eyebrow, and a simply amazing version of Percy Mayfield’s ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’, sounding fresh and joyful, yet totally comfortable among his latest, more spacious numbers.
But both shows are really all about ‘Dream River’ and its 2011 predecessor, ‘Apocalypse’, and they’re made outstanding by the three musicians Callahan is joined by, especially young percussionist Adam Jones, whose conga hand clap beats prove beyond mesmerising. The understated group, led by the silver-haired frontman bathed under minimal lights, create an ocean-sized sound on songs like ‘Javelin Unlanding’ and ‘The Sing’, melting into one long soundtrack like an Americana version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.
Callahan’s baritone cuts through the fuzz and distortion of the lead guitar like an oil leak in a blue lagoon, often ending in a breathy husk or gentle roar. With a voice this rich and full, he doesn’t need to waste it on winding melodies or twists. It just is. Even his subtle harmonica, standing in for the records’ flute, adds another dimension to this oxymoron of epic lo-fi.
The daydream is felt no more than during the extended ‘One Fine Morning’ – it seems to last for a blissful hour without ever tiring – or the heartfelt and uplifting ‘Riding For The Feeling’ and ‘Ride My Arrow’.
There’s no encore. There doesn’t need to be. There’s not even a bow or stage linger to take in his crowd. He’s just there, and then he’s gone.
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Words: Gemma Hampson