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LIVE REPORT: Bill Callahan
James Skinner , March 7th, 2014 06:02

The former Smog man leaves all the talking to his songs to get the attention of James Skinner at the recent gig in BARTs in Barcelona

Photograph courtesy of Iñigo Amescua

"It's been a long month," Bill Callahan tells the seated audience about halfway through the show. "In a good way," he qualifies, not entirely convincingly. "Thank you all," he continues, then trails off again. "... For coming," he adds, with an almost apologetic smile.

He is not what you might call a consummate showman. He is, however, a fascinating one, and weary though he may be, on the final night of a European tour in support of last year's fantastic Dream River, he and his players offer an emphatic reminder of what a unique and enigmatic talent his is.

They take to the stage to warm applause, opening with 'The Sing', wherein Callahan wrings every last ounce of comedy and pathos out of lines like, "The only words I've said today are 'beer' / And 'thank you'." Shorn of some of their on-record flourishes, the songs from Dream River come off rougher-hewn and more forceful in a live setting - more of a piece with his 2011 album Apocalypse - and though the group are all seated minus their frontman, tonight's performance hardly lacks for energy.

Matt Kinsey's work on the electric guitar is a large part of this. To watch the band run through a set list that draws almost entirely from those two records is to realise quite how much his contributions have moulded Callahan's output of late. Whether providing soft ripples of noise on early highlight 'Small Plane', widescreen ambience on 'Riding For The Feeling' or interpolating Nino Rota's iconic theme to The Godfather into the frenzied bouts of lead that punctuate a charged 'America!', the way he plays off Callahan and the rest of the group is exhilarating to watch. 

New songs 'Javelin Unlanding', 'Ride My Arrow' and 'Seagull' effortlessly shift from languid grooves to fierce breakdowns while Apocalypse opener 'Drover' sounds weightier than ever, Callahan's deep, craggy delivery propelled by nervy, skittering percussion. A gentle, lilting 'Our Anniversary' is well-received, while 'Rock Bottom Riser', from the last album that would bear the Smog name, is gorgeous: descending, finger-picked chords buttressing a sweet, cloud-parting mid-section.

Callahan himself doesn't say much. Stock-still for the first few songs, he pauses early on to take in the sumptuous surrounds of the BARTS theatre ("Thanks to... whoever built the place"), names his players during an extended, blues-drenched take on Percy Mayfield standard 'Please Send Me Someone To Love', and offers a final "thank you good night" as he furnishes 'Winter Road' with a clutch of extra lines. Yet he remains an oddly hypnotic performer, and gradually loosens up over the course of the evening to the point where every growl and inflection adds further ballast to these strange, slowly unfurling songs. 

When the band take their leave the curtains stay up for a few minutes of applause. Eventually they are lowered, and as the house lights blink on there are plenty of howls of disappointment that there will be no encore. They don't last long, however, and as the audience file out of the venue, the feeling is one of contentedness more than anything else. He might not be a consummate showman, but man, was that a show.

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