photos by Brian Cullen
review by Jim Beckmann
Writing about a Bill Callahan show is like discussing an abstract or minimalist painting — there’s always the danger of saying too much or too little and any discussion diminishes the experience. And that’s not meant to be a cop out, though admittedly it has taken me well over a week now to get my thoughts together about his show at the Triple Door at the end of June. While plenty of other people have had no problem writing great things about Bill Callahan and his performances (as here), for me the nature of his music defies explanation. It’s like analyzing a Raymond Carver story — shit happens, it’s sometimes dark or painful or even hysterical, but the shit don’t mean anything, not at least beyond its own experience. I mean, there’s no giant billboard with great golden spectacles, looking down on the corruption below it — what, you never read The Great Gatsby? Anyway, in a Carver story, or a Callahan song for that matter, stuff is stuff, and events are events, and they may be weird or commonplace or depressing, and they may even lead to some new discovery, but they’re still what they are — parents whose child died after they ordered his birthday cake receive threatening calls from the baker, who wants his money, but there’s no green light at the end of the pier. You can read into the events all you want, but the lack of further signifiers let you flounder on your own. The words are spare, the details filed down to a bare minimum, but the stories live in themselves. In college, I could never write a paper about Carver’s work without it seeming like utter b.s., and talking about Callahan’s songs to me is just as hard.
Should I read into the lyrics of set opener “Diamond Dancer” (“She was dancing so hard / She danced herself into a diamond /…The one thing on her mind was / It’s time I gave the world my light / …Starting tonight”) and start making insupportable but quite possible assumptions, like is he giving his light for all of us tonight? Sure! On “Jim Cain” from his latest album: “I used to be darker/ Then I got lighter/ Then I got dark again.” Should I talk about how this might reflect Callahan’s career trajectory? Why not? And Cain is spelled like “Cain and Abel,” right? There must be something there? This is not to say there’s no meaning in his lyrics, at least no more or less than anyone else’s perhaps, but what has always appealed to me about his music is his spare and direct presentation. While his lyrics may be vague or suggestive — hell, he even strives for metaphor sometimes (“Somewhere between the wind and the dove / Lies all I lost in you”) — but they’re never epic nor preachy nor striving. They’re private moments and thoughts that we listeners and watchers have intruded upon, but they’re not necessarily ones that he’s hiding, nor are they necessarily even about him. In a slighter man, the songs would be sappy, pretentious, or overly vulnerable. Through Callahan’s directness, they seem raw and unfettered.
Even his physical presence and appearance lead you nowhere beyond the stage — his blue bluejeans, untucked white oxford, sockless boots, and later bare feet don’t ask you to wonder where he got them, what he’s intending, or even who he is, nor does his unstyled hair (although he did have something close to a mullet recently). If you weren’t enamored with him already, would you even recognize him on the street? I doubt he’s often asked, “Are you in a band?” And so you have to take him for what he does — how he plays and sings — which is itself often understated, made more so with his dry baritone voice.
And his band — consisting live of a cellist, violin player, drummer and guitar player — are all experts of understatement like himself, probably too good to be playing what they’re playing live with him — but that’s precisely what makes them so good! There’s nothing like hearing an insanely good drummer tap out a steady rhythm or an expert guitarist strum a consistent melody. If modern art has taught us anything, it’s what they’re not doing that’s important! But they do each get to flourish in the songs, which often exist somewhere between a drone and a groove, and in those explosive moments you realize just how great they are. Thankfully, a Callahan song can go on for minutes longer than you’d expect, so there’s plenty of time for those moments!
Anyway, I’ve probably said more than I should and definitely more than I wanted and yet really not much at all. I’d say you’d be a fool to not see him live, but I can’t exactly say why, and at this point you’d have to be in Europe to get a chance.
And what about the opener, Bachelorette, also on the Drag City label? Very charming, even when frustrated by malfunctioning electronics, and the harmonies that the 2/3 female band create over keyboards, guitars, drums, and prerecorded tracks are quite beautiful. Their new album is definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of Au Revoir Simone.