One Fine Evening: Bill Callahan Starts Apocolypse Tour

A Bill Callahan audience is respectful. A few strums of his guitar and the Mohawk crowd of his fellow Austinites silenced itself to gaze onward, rapt. He opened with “Riding for the Feeling” and flowed through nearly as many songs from 2009’s “Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle” as the new album he was kicking off the tour for, “Apocalypse.” The band seated behind him on the outdoor stage carefully kept up with his songs’ copious tempo changes as Callahan sang them, clad in an all-black suit like Johnny Cash (with the bass vocals and chugging train rhythms to match).

The set was interrupted only by a few “HO!!!!”s and loud beats carrying down the street from Emo’s, where hip-hop group Atmophere was playing the same night. Slug was not rapt; he just rapped.

Callahan’s audience did some whooping and hollering of its own during “America!,” his ode to our “grand and golden” country. Maybe they were digging the way the pace speeds and the guitars rev up, but it probably had more to do with TV news playing mute above the bar, still plastered with headlines: US Kills Bin Laden. He subtly inserted Pakistan into the lyrics’ list of targeted countries.

Photo by Chris Taylor

Tunes from “Woke on a Whale Heart” were ignored entirely, but luckily he closed and encored with Smog favorites off “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love.”

At first, it’s hard to see the benefits of hearing the songwriter live. The music, too substantial and genuine to call for any stage theatrics, is performed so true to the recordings. And his albums are so warm, and recorded so perfectly that you get as familiar with his voice as with a good friend’s. But his careful control over the songs is impressive in itself, and his perpetually  twisted facial expressions show how enveloped he is within them.

In an interview with The Rumpus, Callahan said that each show is like building a new city with the audience in the space of an hour. Last night’s “city” was a peaceful one on the outskirts of a metropolis with a big hip-hop scene. Its structures were built in spite of the threat of wildfires, budget cuts, and tornado season. The climate was colder and darker than surrounding regions, and the good people held fast to a set of common values. There was only one village idiot pumping his fist in the air. And, of course, it was in America.

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