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It’s possible there is no musician finer to see on the eve of Independence Day than Bill Callahan. Considering both his prolific nature and the distinctiveness of his voice, he recalls a stunning and vibrant modern Johnny Cash. Though his vocals are often subdued and subtle at first, the richness of depth of character is that which can only be developed over a whole lifetime of depth and experience. Throughout his set, it became clear that if Bill Callahan isn’t the best America has to offer in terms of songwriters, he’s very close to the top, providing a sweeping sense of talent and redemption to those of us that call America home.
Callahan sings with the dual ability to lull the world into a soft rye lullaby or destroy it with words and a glance. As his vocals appear understated at first, so are these powerful looks, but the longer one is in his presence, the more we stand transfixed witnesses. One starts to transform with each song and slight smile and move to a different sort of place so that the finish line is disorienting as it’s such a long distance from the starting point. It’s such an honor to be in attendance and travel on this glorious journey with him, even if only for a mere night.
Callahan has been making music for over two decades, first with Smog then putting out solo releases under his name. Apocalypse(2011) is his most recent and fourth solo release and has songs on par with both previous solo records and Smog records. (To be sure, each album that Bill Callahan has been associated with has it’s plethora of treasures.) He played the very best tracks from this album last night in his nearly 2 hour long set including “America” and “Drover.” Performing with a backup drummer, Neal Morgan made many of the songs deliver the kind of cunning spirit suiting Callahan’s lyrics and vocals overall. Quite a few of his songs started off slow and soft, as gentle as Baby’s Breath and grew to striking with an element of controlled destruction towards the end, making the tracks seem epic and barely contained. He also had an electric guitarist stage center filling in some interesting layers and textures with distortion, tremolo, and delay in a way that weaved a much richer song compositionally.
Callahan’s own tone evolved from a more serious disposition to one that suggested he was becoming increasingly comfortable by the end of the set and the encore performance. He even asked for audience requests much later on in the set. Of course, with a staggering eleven album releases between solo and Smog recordings, it would take days upon days for Callahan to get to everyone’s favorites. Highlights of his older tracks included “Our Anniversary,” “Sycamore,” “The Well,” “River Guard” and a final encore song of “Bathysphere.” But while his older songs felt nostalgic and perfect remembrances of moments in each of our autobiographies, the lyrics that seemed to linger above our heads was from “Drover” sung early on. “One thing about this wild, wild country. It takes a strong, strong/It breaks a strong, strong mind.” Callahan is a strong author that cannot be broken and his stories, his lyrics, can be put forth as evidence of his continued strength in the best this so grand and golden America has to offer.