Gig review: Bill Callahan at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Bill Callahan. Picture: Hanly Banks CallahanBill Callahan. Picture: Hanly Banks Callahan
Bill Callahan. Picture: Hanly Banks Callahan
Bill Callahan is still often seen as a taciturn figure: an inscrutable sage delivering starkly accompanied gnomic wisdoms, with a preference for the darker side of the road.

Judging by tonight’s marathon performance at a sold-out Brudenell, Callahan’s image as a stern oracle is seriously outdated.

The choice of opening fanfare – Tina Turner’s Private Dancer – is not random. Following a string of unfailingly excellent albums under his own name after justifiably earning a cult hero status under the Smog banner, and quite possibly enlivened by the experience of becoming a father, Callahan is here to boogie, and to generally let loose of the reins.

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The 56-year-old Texas-based songwriter is not one for conventional dance moves. Starting with the stop/start, lopsided camel-like gallop of Bowevil, Callahan hops from one leg to the other on the spot whenever the music picks up serious momentum.

Not that Callahan and his three-piece band are exactly dishing out any obvious invitations to the dancefloor. The recently released, thoroughly excellent album Reality which provides the bulk of tonight’s epic two and a half hour set is marked by a newfound expansiveness and enthusiasm for letting the music sprawl and share the spotlight with Callahan’s unique lyrics, with few strict boundaries imposed.

The new album’s looseness is amplified tonight. With Dustin Laurenzi‘s saxophone sitting in where bass would normally feature in a rock ‘n’ roll combo, expressive guitarist Matt Kinsey administering atmospheric but rarely soothing light and shade to Callahan’s choppy rhythm guitar, and the rhythms rarely being stably settled, the band’s approach has evolved into a seriously heady, almost wilfully out-there racket.

Imagine a cross between starkly beautiful, unhurriedly evolving Americana, crunchily sweaty art-rock muscle and soaring spiritual jazz, topped with Callahan’s warm baritone, and you’re not far off the general flavour of tonight’s proceedings.

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For the first half of the show, the spontaneous jam territory the tunes frequently wander into provide all the unpredictable thrills of semi-improvised music at its finest: there is no chance of staleness or excessively polished routine when even the musicians don’t seem to know where any particular number will eventually wound up.

But as more and more tunes opt for the scenic route and some – such as Partition, one of the new album’s most dynamic highlights – eventually collapse into repetition that inches ever closer to discordant chaos, you start looking out for the nods that Callahan issues to excellently adventurous drummer Jim White (of the Dirty Three) to bring a song to its conclusion.

It feels petty to moan about spots of self-indulgent idling during a generous set that is characterised by an unmistakable joy of playing and a live-wire creative zeal for pushing familiar songs into unforeseen shapes. However, you ultimately can’t help but hope for a little more of the purposeful economic precision of a righteously rocking-out cover of Hank Williams, Jr’s OD’d in Denver or a beautifully reined-in Smog evergreen Rock Bottom Riser.

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