Major keys do nothing for Bill Callahan. Even his slighter songs—“River Guard,” for example, in which the narrator describes the building excitement of his prisoners as they’re unshackled for a swim—resonate with a weight that just can’t be countered by upbeat melody. Sparseness and solitude lend themselves well to the two-man band versions he performed a year ago when he last visited the Gravity Lounge. Supported by a long-haired junkyard percussionist and a small keyboard, Callahan wandered across the smog. songbook with an acoustic guitar. The point, it seemed, was that there’s still uncharted territory to be found in the simple combination of guitar, shaker, and clever mind games.
Tonight, however, he’s a different beast altogether. Woke on a Whaleheart was the first record he released under his own name, and, ironically enough, his return with a larger ensemble came only after dropping the band name. The logical inversion, of course, is that it can be a bit harder to see the man beneath the songs at times, but they’re still put to good use—Callahan’s songs are fattened up as much by the violin and bass as by the drum fills and counterpoint. “Cold Blooded Old Times”, in particular, is driven by biting octave dyads on a violin which, given its aggression, might as well be a distorted guitar. Eighth notes aren’t swung, they’re bludgeoned.
Occasionally, he departs for more lighthearted territory, as in the wry “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man To Be a Man”, which populates the empty spaces between chords with shaker, rimshots, and very little else. “Day” uses a bouncy bassline that seems almost out of character; you’d think his humor would be darker, but the song is genuinely spunky. It dies an abrupt death, though, stopping on the fourth beat of the final measure with no further resolution. Even if the enveloping song isn’t quite typical Callahan, that sort of cliffhanger is exactly what makes him tick.
Among musical philosophers and academics, some believe that the whole medium is just an exercise in tension and resolution. Callahan is clearly a master of the former—even going full-bore, he’ll last twenty minutes at a time without strumming a single chord completely. The spartan guitar lines he uses are instead simple wonders of pop composition—they establish themselves surreptitiously, digging as deep as the ostinato figures in electronica—and the beauty emerges only around bar 16 or 32.
“Say Valley Maker” leans on those guitar lines for a fantastically prolonged introduction, after which the rest of the band finally explodes with enough support to carry Callahan across the finish line just as his gravelly baritone starts to turn into monotone. It’s an intriguing context for his melancholy—the minimalism is inherent in the compositions, four-piece band and arrangements notwithstanding—and Callahan would still seem just as lonely no matter how many musicians he decided to bring along.
Despite the company, stage banter is minimal. It isn’t missed, though—the stories tell themselves while Callahan sings. As his bassist smiles and starts playing the opening line to “Free Bird” after the inevitable audience request, however, Callahan cuts him off: “There’s no way that’s still funny,” he chides, deciding to close with “The Well” instead. Perhaps it’s just because of the supporting cast, but Callahan seems considerably more confident these days now that he’s performing under his own name instead of as smog. His performance is every bit as haunting, though, and even with just a violin player, a mulleted percussionist with a xylophone, and a bassist who smirks as the intro to “Free Bird” squeaks out, his songs are still a lesson in heavy.