Last night I saw Bill Callahan, also known as Smog or (Smog), at The Independent in San Francisco. Bill Callahan’s persona welds a curious discontinuity between confessional writing and reserved delivery. His face can be mask-like, a bland West Texan poker face (though he’s from Maryland) that erupts into contorted grimaces when he sings. The discontinuity helps rescue him from the sin of bathos and from accusations of Jandek-ism, i.e. an outsider artist’s naivety about his own material; two spiritual pitfalls which too many of his kin succumb to. This contradictory spirit also induces a mix of respectful distance and a sense of deep intimacy between him and his audience.
To whit, when women shout at him on stage, they still call him “gentleman,” as one did after he made a crack about his “wee Mick guitar.”
Sir Richard Bishop
Sir Richard Bishop, a nimble bluespicker in the John Fahey tradition, opened for Callahan. At times, he played dizzyingly dense chunks of notes. He did a spoken word piece about sex and assassination that was cleverly done if a bit dated topically, the most recent reference being Sirhan Sirhan, or was it an AIDS joke?
Bill Callahan opened with a run of songs from his new album Woke on a Whaleheart; including “Honeymoon Child,” “Sycamore,” and “Diamond Dancer.” The songs seemed both statelier and folksier than on the album, a function of the violin being an equal instrument in the touring band, as well as the absence of Neil Hagerty’s (of Royal Trux) glossy production in the live set.
His first back catalogue song was a nice surprise, “River Guard” from Knock Knock. It is the song from the album I still listen to the most frequently, about a guard at a prison taking the prisoners out swimming for the day. It is one of those rare Smog song that doesn’t seem as deeply private as some, although the line between the two modes of songwriting is often indistinct.
He played an equal share of songs from his last Smog-monickered album, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love, including “Say Valley Maker,” “Rock Bottom Riser,” “Let me See the Colts,” and “I Feel Like the Mother of the World.” The latter, which was a more propulsive song live than on the recording, was made into a great video starring Chloe Sevigny.
“Let Me See The Colts” is one of my favorites from nay Smog album. The allegory of an optimistic gambler in the face of loss, desperate to see the horses of his future is a state of mind I can relate to, despite never having been to the track. He introduced a strange interlude during the song, whether spontaneous or scripted, it was difficult to tell:
Don’t let them see you crying,” he intoned heavily, and then repeated the line a few times in his unhurried way, before adding:
“Don’t let them see you crying
Laughing and clowning
Laughing and clowning”
“It was the tears that blinded me.
It was the tears that blinded me.
I must face what is directly in front of me
I wiped the tears from my eyes.”
He closed the show with “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man” and his classic song from Wild Love, “Prince Alone in the Studio,” for which Bill sat at the piano. Before starting, he said, “This next one is a relic. The last relic of the night. It’s our last song actually.” The song, a celebration of crowning artistic onanism, the band captured the rich, triumphant, masturbatory bombast of the original track; a song appropriately studio-tweaked and layered, with surprising ease.
Prince’s Studio is Lonely
Callahan returned after briefly leaving the stage to play three more songs, including Cold Blooded Old Times , ending in an extended jam that found him at his most playful duckwalking around the stage on bended knees, even cracking a full unqualified smile. After that he asked the crowd what they wanted to hear as their real last song, “In the Pines,” or “The Well.” For the next minute the hall was an inchoate flood of callouts, so he put it to a vote by raise of hands, but even that proved inconclusive.
He teased the crowd some, flipflopping in his unhurried way hemming and hawing about which fans to please and wish to disappoint before settling on the Well. Even then it wasn’t clear that was the song they’d really play until he intoned, “This ones called The Well,” and its familiar talking blues walking bassline kicked in,
He subtly acted out the tale, keeping the crowd engaged to the very end in the story of a man who discovers a well into which he can yell his feelings out. He also discovers that the blackness of his dark emotions is not an absence, but “all colors at once.” He unfurls a banner of colorful emotions from “red rage” to his “blues” before heading back home; all delivered in his peculiarly deadpan way, even when hooting, even when shouting “fuckall y’all.”
I swear, though, when he turned away from the microphone I saw him hide a satisfied smile.
Bill Callahan has a few more upcoming shows on the west coast, including one tonight at the Mission Theater in Portland, Oregon.