Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bill Callahan - St Georges Church, Brighton, 19/08/09 Review

(Image found at

On the way to St George's Church this evening on an impossibly warm summer's night (one we feel we're owed), wearing my new canvas sneakers from Shoe Zone, clutching the arm of my beloved, we came across a man sprawled out on the pavement. A young woman was walking ahead of us and seemed unsure if she wanted to stop. I barked out at the man, “are you alright mate?” He looked up at us with that look of an old tattered dog, with cheerful wonder in his eyes; sad but searching.

“Uh”, I think he said. Perhaps said like a question.

His face was scorched by the sun and his eyes had bruises and his cheeks were scarred. “Just having a nap are you? Are you ok?” He seemed to nod, and we suggested that perhaps he go down to the beach – which is just there – and have a sleep in a more suitable place. The lady waited to say thanks, though I'm not quite sure why.

We got to the venue to see an enormous queue round the street. We thought we'd made it in good time to get a seat near the front so this was depressing. Me, I was the Englishman, resigned and definitely not wanting to appear to my fellow queuers that I'm trying to skip the queue (though it's always fun if I'm wearing a colourful AAA pass, casually strutting past the lowly masses into the backstage bits). My love, however, had the idea to go check if it was the correct queue. She was of course right about this one (and most things) and we had only to join the really small queue for those who had booked advance tickets by credit card.

We skipped to the front of the Church - a building not unlike an old fashioned railway station – and took a pew in the third row.

Getting excited and silly, we peered around the large room, idly watching people.

Then Sophia Knapp came to the stage. A Nico type character wearing a long yellow dress. She plugged in and started playing some quite edgy grungy acoustic guitar lines and I thought perhaps we'd be in for some kind of dark searching dissonance and awkward beauty.

As it happens, the best thing we could say about her performance was that she had nice arms. Sorry, didn't get it. The crowd seemed equally confused and restless and there was a fairly loud migration to the bar.

During the break time, I found myself outside chatting to some passers by who were asking what was going on inside. I had noticed that there was a guy near me, pissing in the bushes, which I thought was a bit inappropriate considering there were perfectly respectable toilets in the venue. While I explained to these folks that I was about to watch Bill Callahan, they pointed out that the pissing guy had just fallen over. Another wasted man needed my samaritan help tonight. I went over to him and asked him if he was ok. This guy had a different look. Total vacancy. A full beard and dead eyes. I grabbed his hand and hauled him up. He was very shaky with little balance and I helped him to a bench for a sit down.

I was starting to think I should have left the house with a first aid kit and a flask of black coffee.

Sure that he was as alright as he was likely to be, I went to the actual toilet. In there I saw a guy that looked like Bill Callahan but with a goatee. Surely Bill doesn't have a goatee? And surely he'd have his own toilet backstage?

I went to my pew and before I know it, there's the goateed man strolling onto the stage, to sit behind the drum kit!? And then comes Bill, taller and more handsome than I imagine him to be, in a fetching tucked-in shirt and fairly rigorous black trousers; his wrist watch tied around his belt.

Last time I had come to this venue was to see Bonnie Prince Billy and we were late and found ourselves plonked right at the top at the back of the church. The sound was cruel and swirling and undefined. And here we were right at the front. They kicked gently into Our Anniversary, an old Smog number. Hardly an obvious choice for a starter I would say, but a good indication of Bill's style: the elongated chord change, the unexpected turn of phrase. Making you wait, wait, wait...and (wait for it) wait for that change that you were expecting to happen a few bars earlier. It is a peculiar sort of thrill but it gets me every time. Musical foreplay.

Bill was joined onstage by his doppeldrummer, a female violin player, a Jack Black of a cellist and someone from the Sopranos on lead guitar. And throughout Bill played only his sexy new chocolate wood Gibson Les Paul.

Second up was Diamond Dancer, which was cheekily introduced by an off the cuff jazzy interlude. Thankfully that was the last of the jazz.

A few songs in, he spoke his first meaningful words to the crowd. In a voice that sounds like, well, his singing voice – deep and American and like a reassuring old uncle, he said,

“I've enjoyed sharing the toilets with you all tonight.”

He paused.

“I saw a man's willy.”

There was a pretty hysterical level of laughter in the church. I was giggling hopelessly.

“I hoped I'd never see him again. But there he is on the front row.”

I don't know what he played next but I was smiling throughout. That was about the most he said to us all night.

As he sang his many songs of death and love we watched his mouth as he made faces to the microphone. His teeth bared occasionally into an almost smile - but betrayed by his cool eyes.

His melodies are hard to follow on record but much harder live. They sometimes seem simple but he is constantly shifting and reforming his words. Like Dylan but, I would argue, with more respect for the original tune. Bill may wander into unchartered phrasing half way through a verse, but he will usually remember why we liked the song by the end of the verse – giving a warmly received resolution.

The pervading mood that Bill creates is one of reflection and stillness. The often simplistic and repetitive song structures create a space for the words to surf above the music. Deep, droll invocations and proclamations of a strange truth. Particular highlights for me were Eid Ma Clack Shaw, the genius song of dreamed perfection, Sycamore, Say Valley Maker and Jim Cain. Rock Bottom Riser had those in the church with functioning tear ducts weeping openly.

The arrangements were pleasingly sensitive. It was a pleasure to watch the cellist and the drummer especially. And the sound in the church was thankfully clear enough. Only during the louder moments such as on All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast did his vocals get lost in the curved-roof audio swirling.

He left us with Bathysphere and we gave him a standing ovation. We filed out suitably spell-bound and rejuvenated, and I didn't have to help anybody up on the way home.