July 1, 2011
Cedar Cultural Center
As storms raged outside the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday night, Bill Callahan settled everyone's nerves inside the venue with a deeply moving, 100-minute set that spanned his entire career. Playing with a talented backing band of Matt Kinsey on electric guitar and Neal Morgan on drums, the venerable songsmith spun his intricate tales of altruism, affection, and abandonment for a captivated (and mostly stone-silent) audience that was completely under his spell right from the start.
Looking resplendent in a summery seersucker suit, Callahan strode confidently on stage and wasted little time sweeping the nearly full-house away with a stirring, profound rendition of "Riding For The Feeling," from his superb new record Apocalypse, which featured Kinsey's subtle flourishes that only augmented Callahan's strong storytelling and deft acoustic guitar work. "Baby's Breath" kept the emotional level in the room high, and ended up being a clear standout of the set. The poignant number drew to a rousing close as guitar squalls washed over the crowd with Callahan leading the way, retreating to the relative comfort of the discord and dark shadows at the back of the stage after such a revealing, vulnerable song.
After a touching version of "Too Many Birds," Callahan thanked the audience and paid tribute to the stellar work of his bandmates in a typically caustic manner: "That's Matt Kinsey on guitar. I'm going to introduce the drummer later...maybe." But after a delicate rendition of "Free's," Bill wasted little time giving Morgan his due, and rightfully so, as his muted, understated playing gave these somewhat stark arrangements a swinging foundation. But Callahan's deep, resonant vocals and his heart-rending lyrics were the real focus of the show. For no matter how much a listener's thoughts might drift during any given number, a quick, penetrative lyric from Bill can shake you completely from your reverie and truly speak to your soul. And therein lies the true, simple beauty of Callahan's elegant songs.
A raucous version of "Eid Ma Clack Shaw" was another clear highlight of the set, and really found the band hitting their stride and growing more bold with their sound. On a sprawling version of "Universal Applicant," which featured Callahan on harmonica, the trio brought the tender song to a fitting close with a long, exploratory coda that only added to the track's urgent resiliency. The band also stretched out a bit on an explosive, feedback-laden finish to a heart-stopping version of "Drover," giving an already intense song an incendiary, emotional close.
Callahan, who was consistently growing more comfortable as the show progressed, acknowledged both his past shows in Minneapolis as well as the warmth and intimacy of the Cedar while joking: "You put Cultural in the title of the club and it changes everything. It's not like this is the 400 Bar. They're going to have to change their name to the 400 Cultural Bar now." And that sense of ease elevated the beautiful benevolence of "Our Anniversary," the first of five Smog songs Callahan featured in the performance.
In fact, other than a pointed, trenchant version of "America!" and the touching set closer "Sycamore," the rest of the night was filled with Smog numbers: an emotive version of "Say Valley Maker," which Callahan carried mostly by himself until the band chimed in on its euphoric, boisterous finish, a gorgeous, deeply personal rendition of "Let Me See The Colts," and great run-throughs of "The Well" and "River Guard," which made up the rest of the "encore" (even though the band never really left the stage). And, with a heartfelt, sincere word of thanks to the crowd, Callahan was off, leaving the potency of his words and his music lingering in the hearts and heads of all of us in attendance.
Bill Callahan is one of the finest American songwriters of his (or any) generation, and his depth of talent was on full display at the Cedar, enchanting the audience with his simple but resonant songs which capture the human condition in its most revealing, fragile form. He has a unique, distinctive musical gift, and it was a true pleasure to witness him sharing such a personal part of himself with his adoring, dedicated fans in such an intimate venue.
Critic's Bias: I've seen Smog a couple of times (both shows quite a few years ago at the aforementioned 400 Bar), but I really fell in love with Callahan's music due to his last few solo records, and this was my first chance to hear those songs performed live.
The Crowd: A large turnout at what was the perfect venue for Callahan's hushed, beautiful songs.
Overheard In The Crowd: Thankfully, not much chatter at all once the show started (at least from where I was standing).
Random Notebook Dump: Cheers to the new air conditioning at the Cedar--it was much needed (and much appreciated) on this warm, stormy summer evening.
For more photos: See our full slideshow by Erik Hess.
Riding For The Feeling
Too Many Birds
Eid Ma Clack Shaw
Say Valley Maker
Let Me See The Colts
The Well (Encore)
River Guard (Encore)