Gig Review by Andrew Lindsay with Photography by Tony Butterworth

Bill Callahan

I had never heard of Bill Callahan until shortly before Christmas. That’s when the January issue of Mojo magazine dropped through the letter box and hailed Callahan’s Dream River as album of the year. Well if it surpassed the 2013 offerings of Bowie, Daft Punk and Nick Cave then surely this was a singer worthy of further investigation.

Bill CallahanBill Callahan

Bill Callahan is no new kid in town. Now at the tender age of 47 he’s released sixteen studio albums (the first eleven under the rather unappealing alias of Smog). Now riding a wave of critical approval Bill comfortably packs out the 1500 capacity Ritz… a big step up from the Manchester Central Methodist Church where he played two years previously.

Bill CallahanBill Callahan

After an opening set from a rather morose but well received Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts, Bill unassumingly steps on stage twenty minutes later than planned. ‘Its a long haul from Dublin’ (the previous night’s venue), he explains ‘but it was worth it’. Jamie Zuverza (bass); Adam Jones (drums) and Matt Kinsey (guitar) take their seats while Bill stands tall and static, occasionally kicking a leg but for the most part all four are frozen in aspic for the duration of the evening. They begin with two songs from Dream River (‘The Sing’ and ‘Javelin Unlanding’) played pretty much as per the album.

Bill Callahan

As the show progresses the songs expand in length and interest exploring textures and space over which Bill’s monotone baritone floats. Kinsey pulls out some inventive solos occasionally echoing Roy Buchanan and Robert Fripp and Adam Jones shines on the epic landscape painted by ‘Drover’. He plays in a refreshingly subtle understated way – often just using brushes or the palms of his hands. ‘One Fine Morning’ is even longer and stretches out into Astral Weeks territory with added guitar feedback and Bill’s repeated ‘My apocalpyse’ refrain. It is terrific.

Bill CallahanBill Callahan

The guys on the soundboard do a great job tonight: crisp and clear enabling the lyrics to be heard and savoured and doing justice to the tender gravity of ‘Small Plane’. Next up is a long and slightly ponderous country-soul take on Percy Mayfield’s ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’. Bill takes a rare solo on this and becomes almost animated jogging on the spot. ‘America!’ is notable for its rhythmic swing and dynamic changes of pace. A cover of Leon Russell’s classic ‘A Song For You’ follows but the treatment of it pales in comparison to the playful and almost fun ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’. The show then drifts on in a relaxing reverie to the 11pm curfew.

Bill Callahan

This is not a rock n’ roll show. It is laidback Americana, beautifully played and deliberately unexciting. As Bill himself says it is the sort of music that you ‘listen to at the end of the day before you go to bed’. Not one for showbiz Bill lets the music do the talking. He rarely speaks except to thank the audience for coming and to name check the band. There’s no introduction of songs; there’s no mention of any of his albums – not even the soon to be released dub version of Dream River. There are no changes of guitar and there is no encore. There’s not even a band website. Bill Callahan is decidedly different and for that we should be eternally grateful.

Bill CallahanBill Callahan

Setlist: The Sing; Javelin Unlanding; Jim Cain; Ride My Arrow; Drover; One Fine Morning; Small Plane; Please Send Me Someone To Love; Spring; America!; A Song For You; Dress Sexy At My Funeral; Seagull; Winter Road.

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