Live at the Common Grounds in Gainesville, Florida on December 13th, 2009
With Bill Callahan, it all begins with the stoic delivery and those deep, baritone pipes. Last Sunday evening at the Common Grounds in Gainesville, Florida, the plumber must have just vacated the premises, for those aforementioned pipes sounded crystal clear, and the stoney face was as indomitable as ever.
Wearing blue jeans, a collared button-down shirt, white, with a black belt and boots, Callahan looked as if he had just breezed in from the plains, or perhaps from mending a fence post in the back 40 acres. He actually looked a bit like Beck, if Beck was taller and a gunslinger. The only thing missing was the hat in the picture above.
As for the rest of the band, there wasn’t much. Bill had a really good drummer with him on stage, who just happened to be opener Neal Morgan. In addition to a minimal set-up, Morgan came equipped with either an MPC, laptop, or some other flavor of beat-oriented electronic equipment. This influence was rather subtle, however, with Morgan mostly utilizing it for muted, organic-sounding bass and synthy whisps of windy ambience.
His drumming was top. In one song, Morgan touched the tips to snare so lightly it sounded exactly like rain pitter-pattering on a roof. In another, he busted out a pair of those sticks that look like basting brushes on the ends, making a leaf-rattling sound that matched perfectly with Callahan’s well-deep voice.
Morgan’s style reminded me a bit of David King’s (from The Bad Plus) in the livelier songs, where he utilized every surface on his kit as a tone target. It looked like he was trying to beat his drum set in a fight, versus simply playing it.
But back to Bill Callahan. For starters, the man’s voice commands attention, like Keith David or Sam Elliot. Combine that with the vast expanses of lonely space found in so much of Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, like a windy and dust-clouded plateau, the effect is that of something incredibly serious going down, like a gunfight at high noon.
At one point, between verses, Callahan struck this awesome, alas-poor-Yorick guitar pose. He left the microphone, walked around to the other side of the stage, got as close to the audience as he could, then raised his axe like a shotgun. He strummed it at the crowd, a fierce look in his eyes, looking past the people’s heads as if staring at something far beyond. At that moment Callahan’s body language was just as commanding, if not more commanding, than his baritone voice.
Then he went back to the microphone. It took him all of 30 seconds, one continuous Oscar-worthy movement, but it seemed like so much more, especially considering how otherwise stoic the man usually is.
He played a good lot from Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, including excellents such as “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” and “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast.” It boggled my mind when Bill broke out a banjo for “Rococo Zephyr.” I had no idea he used a banjo on that track. It sounds like a guitar on the recording, and it did live as well, but there it was, a bad-ass black and chrome banjo. Other strumming utensils included an acoustic guitar and an ‘lectric guitar, making for three rifles on the ol’ gun rack, and Callahan switched it up a lot between songs.
As you might expect, being Bill Callahan, he didn’t talk to the crowd much. He said “Thanks, got one more number for you,” before the last song of the set, and for the encore, he said “thanks, this one’s called ‘The Well.'”
That was the last track, and in the middle of it, Bill did something so stealth, I don’t know if anyone even noticed. He thanked Lights and Neal Morgan, but the manner in which he did it sounded like a verse in the song, as if he were singing the actual lyrics. I don’t think anyone even realized it, because no one clapped after he subtly sang these thanks. Usually people do, when the headliner gives props to the opening bands, but I don’t think anyone in the audience even knew what was happening.
This little event, I thought, was the coup de grâce. Because, when he sang the thank-yous, it was with all the emotion that wasn’t there in the between-song banter, you know, when he deadpanned, “thanks.” He gave the full treatment in the closing encore, and no one knew it was happening.
That’s a James Bond move right there, but in a Bill Callahan kind of way.
You might hear if for yourself tonight at Spanish Moon, alongside Lights and Neal Morgan, if you call Baton Rouge, Louisiana home. Then there’s one final date in Austin, Texas, the place Bill Callahan calls home, also with Lights. After that, he’s got two months off before heading to France, then Spain, then…
12/18/09 at Spanish Moon in Baton Rouge, LA w/ Lights & Neal Morgan
12/20/09 at St. David’s Church in Austin, TX 4pm w/ Lights
2/10/10 at Le Grande Mix in Tourcoing, France
2/11/10 at Olympic Club in Nantes, France
2/12/10 at Cafe de la Danse in Paris, France
2/13/10 at Theatre Garonne in Toulouse, France
2/15/10 at Sala Apolo in Barcelona, Spain
2/16/10 at Centre de Cultura Sa Nostra in Palma Mallorca, Spain
2/18/10 at Teatro Jofre in Ferro, Spain
2/19/10 at Teatro Caizanova in Vigo, Spain
2/20/10 at Auditorium in Valladolid, Spain
2/21/10 at Cafe Hispano in Zaragoza, Spain
2/23/10 at L’Escorxador in Elche, Spain
2/24/10 at Teatro Isidoro Maiquez in Granada, Spain
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– Matt Lehtola