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Live Review and Photos: Bill Callahan, June 16, 2011, Troubadour – West Hollywood, CA



One of the harshest, most dismissive, and utterly useless words someone can use to describe music is “boring.” It’s a blanket term that can mean a lot of things, from the music being too slow, to the music being void of emotion, to the listener being distracted, to the listener just being unable to engage at a fundamental level. For me, when something strikes me as boring, it is usually because I feel like what I am hearing or seeing has been done before, that the music is unoriginal and, thus, unable to capture my interest. Regardless, no criticism is more subjective than calling something boring, though I couldn’t help but dwell on this sentiment while watching Bill Callahan and Michael Chapman on Thursday night.

To be clear, in no way was I ever bored during their show. Quite the opposite, actually. Callahan and Chapman are both engaging performers, but at the heart of their music is a rather quiet aesthetic, that I could very easily imagine someone thinking is boring. But, does this say more about the listener than the artist? Is all music supposed to smack you upside the head and hit you with fireworks and punk jumps and sonic blasts? Is there not room for subtlety and nuance, without forcing the audience to look for their remote control in a hasty switching of the channels?

See, if you think music like that of these songwriters is boring, there is little that I can do to change your mind. One look at Michael Chapman, the 70-year old English singer and guitarist who opened the show, would be enough to cause many to flip a little switch to what they consider relevant. But, in watching Chapman, I was reminded of the joys that can come from music when you don’t judge a book by its cover and give something that may seem out of your normal taste range a fighting chance. And Chapman did prove why he has been in the music business for 50 years, combining smooth finger picking with less predictable slaps at his guitar strings and harmonics, while sing-talking his way through 40 minutes of folky numbers. The crowd ate up his every movement, giving him both the attention that his history deserves, and the acknowledgment that his playing deserves.

Bill Callahan, on record at least, might also be easy to dismiss as boring. His rich baritone is best served in a solitary environment, where one can pay attention to his dense lyrics and let his cradling melodies comfort and heal. Live, should he have performed solo or with similar arrangements to his albums, this might have been too laid back to work and keep people entertained for the nearly two hours that he played. But Neal Morgan and Matt Kinsey, Callahan’s two touring bandmates made the idea of Callahan slipping into well-worn dude-with-an-acoustic-guitar territory a mile away from the truth. On drums, Morgan was a revelation, causing numerous people in the crowd to comment that they can’t remember seeing a better percussionist. The beats were never flashy and the technique was nothing that hasn’t been done, but Morgan knows how to truly make the drums shine as an instrument, consistently elevating the songs’ intensity at the right moments and, at times, just being loud enough to get the crowd moving to some acoustic-based songs. Kinsey’s guitar-work also operated in subtleties, but the electric inflections were always on point and perfect for what the song was trying to convey. His expertise caused Callahan to note that he would often “stand near Kinsey, so people might think it was him making those sounds.”

Of course, many in the crowd were Callahan die-hards, going back to his days when he was known as Smog. Thus, the setlist choices were key in making sure the crowd left happy. On this level, Callahan hit a homerun. The set focused on his previous two albums, the recently-released Apocalypse and 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, keeping the vitality of the singer with songs it was obvious that he still connected with. High-points included “Drover,” which began with the vocal send-off “the real people went away,” and accelerated into near-noise rock territory, and the anthemic “America!” which allowed the group to inch closely to rock band status. But, older numbers were included sporadically to please the devotees, including Smog numbers “Our Anniversary” and, my personal favorite song penned by Bill Callahan, “Say Valley Maker.” The crowd was even invited to make a request, which was responded to by a few hundred people all shouting something different at the same time. Callahan smiled and tried to listen for the most prevalent request, finally conceding that he though he heard some people asking for “River Guard,” and obliging them to play it.

Dressed in a white suit, and with his bandmates also looking classy, Callahan even moved around like a genuine performer, sometimes moonwalking to the back of the stage and other times going down to one knee in emotion. Basically, he did his best to not be boring. And I don’t know if it would have been enough to win over someone who wasn’t already a fan, but I like to think there is some objectivity in the world, that any person could recognize when a master songwriter is giving his all in a performance and trying his best to also be an entertainer. Regardless, the set surely pleased the sold-out crowd at the small club, and I guess it is pointless to really worry about anything beyond that. We are lucky for having been there, and were lucky for having such an enjoyable night.

Setlist:

Riding For The Feeling
Baby’s Breath
Too Many Birds
Free’s
Eid Ma Clack Shaw
Universal Applicant
Drover
Our Anniversary
America!
Say Valley Maker
Let Me See The Colts
Jim Cain

Rococo Zephyr
River Guard
Bathysphere


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