Bill Callahan At The Rhythm Room 6-15-11

Bill Callahan
The Rhythm Room
Wednesday, June 15

His reputation as a "sad guy with a guitar" notwithstanding, one defining element of Bill Callahan's music struck me the most while listening to him at The Rhythm Room last night: his sense of humor.

Don't misread me; Callahan never even cracked a smile. But he is genuinely funny in the most subdued way, shuffling around the stage with little marches, assuming a Ramones style rock 'n' roll stance, employing sly subtle tricks of phrase and black comedic imagery.

Callahan's voice is a powerful thing, a low, Cohen-esque rumble, and while there were indeed moments that explored dramatic, heavy themes, I was blown away by how fun the crowd was. People danced, hooted, and cheered, and Callahan, reserved as he was, seemed to feed off it.

Armed with a high-slung acoustic guitar and decked out in a white seersucker suit, Callahan took the stage to a cheering, nearly sold-out house. He would go on to later remark that when he last played The Rhythm Room, there were "Something like ten people, sitting over there," gesturing toward the wall. "I've been thinking about alternate realities," he joked, noting the packed room.

Callahan opened with "Riding for the Feeling," from his latest album, Apocalypse.

Electric guitarist Matt Kinsey remained seated during the performance, but added an absolutely perfect amount of color to the tunes, often barely playing, other times coaxing waves of sound out of his amplifier. Drummer Neil Morgan was just as impressive, lightly brushing the drums, sometimes using his hands on the toms and snare, his eyes locked on Callahan for direction. The two were an incredible backing band, conjuring up more sound than you would expect from a duo.

Callahan focused mostly on songs from his latest and 2009's Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle. He detoured into Smog tunes a few times -- playing "Let Me See the Colts" and "Say Valley Maker" from A River Ain't Too Much to Love.

Easing into the set, he barely spoke, but seemed to loosen up as the night went on. The crowd did too, shouting out requests (which Callahan did not acknowledge), and screaming things like "You make me feel good inside."

Of course, some folks just take it too far -- during Callahan's brilliant "America," where he skewers, illustrates and examines his relationship with his country, someone shouted out "fuck yeah," most likely referring to Team America, which is hilarious, but completely missing the point of Callahan's song, which thoughtfully illustrates the strange love and ties one can have to a place, while not being proud of the transgressions committed. "Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American/Everyone is allowed a past they don't care to mention," Callahan sang.

The sentiments were funny, but also dark -- "Universal Applicant" comes complete with "poof" sound effects, but also describes drowning on a lake. It's just Callahan's style, one that blends the absurd with the sad, the serious with the bitterly funny.

No line sums things up more than the one in "Rococo Zephyr," where Callahan intoned, "I used to be sort of blind, now I sort of can see."

Following a brief break, the band returned to perform a few songs as an encore. "Jim Cain" found Callahan incorporating lyrics about "going to Phoenix," "rising from the ashes of a wildfire" and being "reborn." Considering all of the trouble our state is in right now concerning fires, it was a poignant moment, a note that while trouble may be par for the course, there's always hope, and often redemption.

It wasn't Callahan's most humorous line of the night, but it was certainly the most beautiful.

Set List:

"Riding for the Feeling"
"Baby's Breath"
"Too Many Birds"
"Eid Ma Clack Shaw"
"Universal Applicant"
"Our Anniversary"
"Say Valley Maker"
"Let Me See the Colts"
"Jim Cain"


"Rococo Zephyr"

Critics Notebook:

Last Night:
Bill Callahan and Swell...Adios at The Rhythm Room

The Crowd: A standard mix of The Stinkweeds crowd, with some folks in their early 50s spread about. Probably the most polite crowd I've experienced since...well, honestly, it's been awhile since I've reviewed a show with a rowdy crowd.

Overheard: "Ever single word he sings is perfectly picked out."

Personal Bias: I was surprised to see my friend and former band-mate Jon Douglas playing with Swell...Adios. They sounded great, my personal relationship aside. Hope to hear more from them in the future.

Random Notebook Dump: "sugar-foot Callahan" -- some sort of reference to Bill's dancing.

By the Way: Drag City, the label Callahan is on, recently re-issued a bunch of records by Mickey Newbury, the singer/songwriter Callahan calls "Sergeant Newbury" in "America," along side Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Kris Kristofferson. I haven't picked them up yet, but I have a few of Newbury's other records, and I imagine the new editions are great.   

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.