Live music review: Bill Callahan

The Olympia, Dublin

Bill Callahan shuffled off his old alias, Smog, a few years back. Since then, his profile has shot up on the back of three perfectly realised concept albums, culminating with last year’s Dream River.

The switch has also corresponded with Callahan revealing a barer persona, both on record and on stage. In the Olympia, he and his majestic band are in wondrous form, but it’s Callahan’s raw intensity that is to the fore.

His superbly crafted lyrics reside in an inspirational use of the most everyday words, and when he performs you witness his conviction. It’s evident in the sinewy contortions of his mouth each time he issues a telling line. It’s as if he were channelling not the words themselves, but the ghost of some simple, hard and honest thing within them.

The danger with that sort of intensity is that, despite the levity Callahan invariably finds in his lyrics, it can all seem too serious, too portentous. In days gone by, Callahan’s set-lists avoided any such fate by embracing an eclecticism of tone.

While it seems criminal to carp about such a beautiful performance, there is a disappointing one-note quality to the set.

Yes, Callahan and his band create a mighty soundtrack to some weird, jazz-western of his own imagining. And, yes, the opening trio of songs — ‘The Sing’, ‘Javelin Unlanding’, and ‘Jim Cain’ — are absolutely serene. And, yes, even when the guitars immerse us in a furious squall for a spell, as they do during a long middle section that features ‘Drover,’ ‘America,’ and ‘One Fine Morning,’ that serenity remains. Yet without a few more ramshackle songs in the set, it all got just a little bit tantric.

Notably, Callahan played only two songs from his Smog back catalogue, both of which were largely conversant with the newer material. It was a great show, but it might have benefited from a few numbers from the more ‘cold-blooded old times’ Callahan used to savour.


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