Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bill Callahan Live

On Friday night (June 12th) some friends and I went downtown, DC to see Bill Callahan (Smog) and his backing group play at the Black Cat (a night club/bar/concert venue that specializes in indie, alt, and experimental music.)

Before I describe the main act, let me just express my amusement with the opening band, Lights. The sister-like duo of gold-robed blonde females set a most interesting tone by beginning their set with some a cappella singing and harmonizing into one microphone. This was before most of the concert-goers had arrived, so they were singing to me and about 5 other people. It was rather awkward, so thankfully they quickly moved to their instruments and began to jam out. One of them, who looked remarkably like Julia Stiles, went crazy on the drumset, with arms and legs flailing about and her hair flying all over the place, all the while keeping a sheepish grin on her face. The other girl played electric guitar and they both sang, while a less-enthused man in black played bass on the side. Eventually the guitar-player knelt on the ground to get feedback from her amp, but then started writhing around rather sexually and then the act ended. It was weird.

Then Bill Callahan came on, and his group of string musicians set up their instruments (including an awesome bodiless electric cello, picture example below.) Bill's guitar was also pretty neat, as it had a wood-patterned coat of paint even though it was electric.
Anyway, on to the music. Callahan picked a very representative set of melodies, most from his four most recent albums. Like Animal Collective did at their live show, Bill adapted his back catalog to fit the sound of his newest album, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. He toned down the bright, upbeat melodies of Woke On A Whaleheart to fit the shadier, more mellow mood while at the same time adding lush string arrangements to his sparse guitar solo-work from the days of Knock Knock. What I can remember of the set list is as follows:

1. Jim Cain
2. Rococo Zephyr
3. Diamond Dancer
4. Sycamore
5. Say Valley Maker
6. Our Anniversary
7. Too Many Birds
8. The Wind And The Dove
9. Rock Bottom Riser

Encore:
1. Let Me See The Colts
2. Eid Ma Clack Shaw
3. Coldhearted Old Times

The choice of the beautiful opener, "Jim Cain," the heart-wrenching closer, "Rock Bottom Riser," and the three more well-known encore tracks showed good taste and, while I am not usually a fan of encores, I was glad he returned. I should also mention that the sound mixing was impeccable: each instrument could be heard vividly, including Bill's signature baritone vocals. The sharpness of the sound quality led to an appropriate focus on the lyrics and string arrangements, both of which are for what Bill Callahan is best known. He mostly sang with his eyes closed, but during the instrumental portions he made direct (and sort of creepy) eye contact with those of us who were standing closest to the stage, and there were times when we could feel the sadness evoked by the song just by the look of the lines on his face. And let's not forget about his dancing, which was quirky and somewhat awkward, but mostly endearing: he would kick out his back leg and hold it, then sort of rock back and forth every once in awhile, but never in any sort of rhythm. All in all, it was a great concert, and for some reason it felt oddly appropriate that the last few hours of my teenage years (I turned 20 during the encore at midnight) were spent listening to a man who understands the weight of living.

I couldn't help but take a few videos, even though it was forbidden by the venue. The first is my favorite excerpt from "Too Many Birds":

video

The next is a full video of the most downbeat song, "Rock Bottom Riser":

video

And finally, the most I could record of single "Eid Ma Clack Shaw" before my camera ran out on me (my apologies for the sound quality, my camera gets worse and worse as it fills up):

video

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