Bill Callahan – Live At Royal Festival Hall

With last years “Dream River” Bill Callahan took the crown of For The Rabbits album of the year. Whilst he’s probably unaware of this accolade he should be very proud, it was not something I thought he would ever achieve. Yes I’ve long been a fan of his work, I enjoyed his records as Smog, I really enjoyed both “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle” and “Apocalypse” but I was beginning to think he had given me everything he had to give. With “Dream River” he took his trademark dry wit and cynicism, and with the addition of some lightness and even a touch of happiness created a true master piece. Would the album propel him to a new level of fame? Of course not, some bands aren’t ever going to do that. Take Nick Cave, yes he’ll always have an adoring audience, and the media have always responded well to him, but will he ever play Wembley Stadium? No, because he’s found his place in the spectrum and this is where he belongs. In the same way The Royal Festival Hall is probably perfect for Bill, he’ll probably never play a bigger venue in London, he’s an artist at the peak of his creative powers and very comfortable in his own skin. Bill Callahan now seems to know who Bill Callahan is as an artist, and it’s a wonderful thing to hear.

He opens his set with The Sing, the opening track from Dream River, and whilst the sound engineer doesn’t quite get to grips with his low baritone voice, it’s a still a compelling example of the new found confidence he demonstrates. In a way it’s a classic American drinking song, a lonely man “drinking while sleeping strangers unknowingly keep me company in hotel bars”, the chorus receives a lot of attention from critics the killer line “the only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you” rightly garnering praise, but it’s also a telling example of why he’s such a fantastic lyricist for another reason, he’s a master of knowing his hook and repeating it. He doesn’t over egg the pudding but neither does he let a fantastic one liner or melody pass by to be quickly forgotten. His timing is that of a stand up comic, even if he is does actually cut a fairly awkward figure between songs. This came as a great surprise to me, he did open up as the show went on though, and some of his banter was fantastic. “We love you Bill” crows an audience member, “I pay that guy to come on tour with me” as other audience members declare their love, he cut’s them down with “the positions taken people, there’s no pension plan” the comic timing is flawless.

Javelin Unlanding, and Jim Cain from 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle follow and it’s only by the fourth track Spring that the sound really kicks into gear, from here on in we are treated to a master class. Spring itself is a fascinating mix of lust and love, he notes that “the true spring is in you” but whilst that’s a lovely metaphor, he goes on to conclude “all I want to do, is make love to you in the fertile dirt” and it suddenly doesn’t seem quite so romantic!

“Drover” is a tale of the wilderness and yes, cattle ranching. It’s not a subject that would make a great deal of sense to the average Southbank Centre audience member, but there’s a rugged honesty to his tale, and with his battle worn voice you can quite believe he’s wrestled with the “wild, wild country, that’s takes a strong, and breaks a strong, strong mind” even when in character you never for a moment doubt he means every word he says. One of the most surprising thing about Callahan live is with the addition of a three piece band he spins many of the tracks out, turning some of them into almost expanded jam sessions, quite different to his recorded sound.

He reminds us he was once Smog, playing the best Smog track “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” which for whatever reason, despite being 14 years old now, draws the biggest response from the crowd. It’s essentially a man wanting to shape his own obituary, imploring his wife to tell his mourners tales of his sexual exploits, and even adding almost as an afterthought “also tell of how I gave to charity, and tried to love my fellow man” before going on to explain that “most of all, don’t forget about the time upon the beach” it’s quite clear where his priorities lie, he wants to be remembered as his generations Casanova, or perhaps an indie George Clooney.

He throws in a Ray Charles cover, before playing buzzing, expansive versions of Ride My Arrow, and Apocalypse’s One Fine Morning, which are technically fantastic. He laments the crowd at one point for not wooping and hollering enough at the exploits of his co-guitarist, “what more does he have to do?” it’s exhilarating playing, though the middle section of the concert is in danger of sagging a little, that is until he’s bursts out America! (the exclamation point is important here) it’s an arrestingly, loud call to arms. Whilst it masquerades as a pro-American track, in reality it’s a brilliant anti-war tune. “Everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention” is a pretty clear opinion, but there’s more subtlety and a hint of Animal Farm about the closing chorus “All the lucky suckle teat, others chaw pig knuckle meat. Ain’t enough teat, ain’t enough teat, ain’t enough to eat, in America!” with it’s propulsive percussive sound it even has the cheek to sound almost like a collegiate marching band. Take that America!

There’s a moving cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” which when sung by a man who’s dated Joanna Newsom & Cat Power is a tough sell, but you do almost feel a tiny bit sorry for him! Too Many Birds was already a personal favourite and it’s just as good here, again it shows the amazing subtlety of his words. During the closing verse, he constructs a sentence one word at a time, gradually working his way up from a simple “If” to “If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat” adding a word at a time, every time through for eleven times, it should be clunky but with his croaky voice it works majestically.

He closes the set with a couple of tracks from Dream River. First Seagull, which combines his two favourite topics, booze and birds! In reality it’s actually a track about the troubles of a travelling musician “With all the tolls we pay, we’ll own the highway someday” and more so it’s a track about the perpetual motion and cyclical nature of it all “How long have I been gone? How long have I been travelling? And how tired have I been? And how far have I got in circling and circling and circling?”

He closes appropriately with “Winter Road” the closing track of Dream River. It’s a rare moment of pure romanticism from our favourite grouchy old cynic “time alone means nothing, but time spent with you” and he goes on to note “when things are good, you just keep on” and you wish he would keep on for hours more. Sadly it’s the last track, but before he goes he treats us to a brilliant improvised tale, entirely off the cuff, about how Queen Victoria, firstly looked like a coin purses full of gold doubloons, and secondly would be the kind of person to stop if you’re truck broke down and help you out with jumper cables and a jump suit so she doesn’t get oil everywhere. You can’t help but crack a smile, and hope that as unlikely as it sounds maybe Vicky might actually be that sort of gal.

He doesn’t return for an encore, which is a great shame. There was so much more I wanted to hear, he didn’t even play my favourite track “Small Plane” but despite that, I can’t leave feeling anything but privileged to have seen a master at work. He’s made it now, he’s established his place, he’s found his niche and long may it last. He’s one of a kind is our Bill…and all the better for it!

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