Photo credit: Luisa Cinta
As if he weren’t already enough of a cipher, Smog’s Bill Callahan has now started cloaking his stage name in parentheses. Whatever the motivation for the change to (Smog), it seems appropriate that the notoriously reclusive Callahan would counter his ever-expanding fame by further obscuring his band’s name, confusing would-be fans, and giving concert listings the air of a casual aside. Callahan performs infrequently, and I remember my excitement three years ago, going to see him perform for the first time, at London’s massive Royal Festival Hall. The openings acts were Austria’s Fuckhead (screaming obscenities, clothed in diapers made of garbage bags), and a sadly short-lived Jarvis Cocker side project called A Touch of Glass. With little fanfare, Smog (still sans parentheses) came on stage and gave what still ranks as one of the most boring concerts I’ve ever attended.
So it was with a touch of trepidation that I approached the recent (Smog) concert at the Bowery Ballroom, only deepened by the fact that two of his last three albums, 2000’s Dongs of Sevotion and 2001’s Rain On Lens, were flaccid and depressingly flat. But I was still hopeful, because his latest, Supper, is a marked improvement, and because I had spent the afternoon listening to his two masterpieces, 1997’s Red Apple Falls and 1999’s Knock Knock, reminding me just how alarmingly intimate Callahan’s dry, detached singing can be.
The concert opened with “Feather by Feather”, the first track from Supper, a sweet country waltz that the band (comprised of Callahan on guitar with a drummer, a keyboardist, and another guitarist) performed with a nicely loose feel. Next came “Ambition”, a dark, cinematic song, with a propulsive rhythm that speaks of restless wanderings, coupled with lyrics like “I just dropped by to see you / as I’m on my way / in your bedroom / just off the highway.” This was perhaps the highlight of the songs performed from Supper, although “Truth Serum”, a rambling, surreal duet (with the keyboardist providing the female vocals), was also excellent. But in general, the songs from Supper sounded solid but uninspired, part of Callahan’s general drift away from the unusual music he used to make, towards increasingly generic, strummed guitar rock songs.
More than almost any other performer I know, the effectiveness of Callahan’s voice depends upon the material he is singing. He sings with practically no inflection, and seems determined to keep any trace of emotional involvement out of his voice. Because of this, some songs that could be pulled off by more emotive or theatrical singers sound completely unconvincing when he attempts them. But when he sings a great song, and he has written many of them, there is a deep feeling of emotional dignity that few other singers could produce.
Fortunately for us, he did reach into some of his back catalogue during this concert, although still relying quite heavily on songs from Supper. We were treated to the creepy “River Guard” (“When I take the prisoners swimming / They have the times of their lives…our sentences will not be served / we are constantly on trial / it’s a way to be free), and the uncharacteristically optimistic “Let’s Move To the Country” (complete with trilling flutes), both from Knock Knock. Better still was “Bathysphere”, from 1995’s Wild Love. The song is like the template for all of Smog’s later dark, brooding rock songs, and featured Callahan breaking into a spine-tingling falsetto. For me, though, the highlight of the evening was a quiet, acoustic performance of “To Be Of Use”, perhaps the most moving song in Smog’s catalogue, as well as being, in typical Callahan fashion, one of the most amusing. Over a sweet, spare guitar part, that could have been played by Nick Drake, Callahan sung “Most of my fantasies / are of / making someone else come / most of my fantasies are of / to be of use…like a spindle / like a hammer / like a horseshoe / like a corkscrew / to be of use.” It was hard to know whether to giggle or to cry.
The concert ended with “Bloodflow”, a song off of Dongs of Sevotion that I’ve always found droning and bombastic. It was a pleasant surprise that Callahan made it work perfectly in concert, turning the song into a tense and thrilling saga that just kept building, ending the evening with a satisfying bang.