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Bill Callahan + Lights

(12 Jun 2009: Black Cat — Washington DC)

Bill Callahan as a commercial entity has no business existing in 2009. His understated indie rock seems entrenched in the ‘90s when—along with Elliot Smith, Will Oldham, and the Silver Jews—he won our hearts with ragged, simple tunes. Callahan’s ballads are the stuff of empty beer bottles and midnight brooding. You get the impression that Bill Callahan only sings because he could never express his feelings through casual conversation. Can we say the same of the talky Devendra Banhart?


Callahan’s brand of alt-country was once huge in alternative circles, but has given way to wide-eyed acid test folk over the last decade. Seems like today’s folkies must offer some prefix of a gimmick in order to interest the youth. Freak folkers employ psychedelic projection screens, synths and avant-garde song craft, while Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, and other “hot new things” use sparkling production and fresh-faced harmonies. Bill Callahan hails from a different era. The audience, which skewed noticeably older, bore evidence.


But first, Brooklyn’s Lights took the stage. The threesome comprised two blondes on drums and guitar (who, along with Ladyhawke and others, seem to have graduated from the Stevie Nicks School of Pouting, Sighing, Frizzy-Haired Beauty) and a dude on bass. I checked the band’s MySpace page when I got home and found that a fourth member, one Wizard Smoke, was absent. I don’t think I missed out on much though, because her role in the band is limited to manning some kind of video projection that she manipulates live along with the music.


Lights are in their element when playing fun and fast, as on “War Theme”. The fevered, intertwining sighs of the two girls floated over funky bass lines. Guitarist Sophia Knapp makes use of many effects pedals, which keeps her primitive soloing interesting. The band’s slinky psychedelic-disco filled the room, though the folkster crowd didn’t seem too interested. I wouldn’t be surprised if these Brooklynites were deemed “alt-celebs” by the end of the year.


Callahan shied away from material released under his Smog moniker, drawing largely from his newest record, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. It’s one of his best albums, so only a few crowd members seemed to mind. Flanked by a violin and a cello on stage right and drums and guitar on the left, Callahan stoically strummed a second guitar.


He began the performance with Eagle’s superb opener, “Jim Cain”, before cycling through a variety of his latter day material and treating us to the odd Smog track. The electric cellist swayed back and forth as he played, his hefty frame dwarfing the instrument. He played short, sharp jabs at the strings, a surprisingly decent substitute for bass. In contrast, the nearby violinist emitted longing, one-note refrains reminiscent of ‘50s pop.


The gorgeous “Rococo Zephyr” and Bowie-biting “Diamond Dancer” gave his backing band a chance to really shine. The cellist bent his strings almost to breaking. “Too Many Birds” was the only song for which the band’s performance could be described as “energetic.” For just a moment Callahan’s voice rose above speaking volume, as he sang, “If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat.”


The band played the haunting “The Wind and the Dove” without the recorded version’s Arabian Nights flair, though his violinist did replicate the suspenseful trills heard on the album, which I can’t help but compare to RZA’s unmistakable sample on Raekwon’s “Guillotine (Swordz)”.


This was the first time I had seen Callahan in concert. You wouldn’t expect such rich, low tones to come from his chubby, boyish face. This face would strain and contort while Callahan’s lyrics leaked from the side of his mouth. He’s not much for stage theatrics, but occasionally he would lift a leg and see saw back and forth or bend his knees inward like an awkward bird—a resemblance difficult to ignore considering that every other song he played tonight references birds (also trees, but especially birds resting on trees).


By the end of the show Callahan gave into a few persistent true believers begging for a more familiar song with a gracious performance of “Rock Bottom Riser”, perhaps his biggest hit as Smog. Along with everyone else in the front row, I expected an encore. Callahan’s set list was sitting on the floor a few feet away from the edge of the stage and there were still a few more songs left to go. But by that time it was after midnight and I needed to head home before the trains stopped running. I left the Black Cat to the sound of cheers and shouted requests, satisfied that there is still room for Bill Callahan in 2009.

Cole Stryker covers music for PopMatters from New York.


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