Distance. Bill Callahan does not make it to our shoreline very often and that is probably due to geographical distance. The music he has created in his career and very much of late has a lot of space and distance between thoughts and within the composition. Tonight, even the stage set up, with him and his Dream River Band 10 meters away from the front of stage, conveyed a similar sense of remoteness and space.
Callahan and the band were joined onstage by the landscape paintings of Australian Paul Ryan. Ryan and Callahan met via email a little while ago when Callahan was asked by Ryan if he could use some of his music in a documentary. Callahan was looking for an album cover at the time, “sending out tentacles to find something” as he put it, and he said he could use his music if he sent him a painting.
Ryan took him up on it and now his paintings have graced the cover of Callahan’s albums and tonight all the backdrops were of his work. Callahan described his love of Ryan’s work in an emotive way in that “I sense I can feel the drops of water in his water paintings and that there feels like something is lurking behind or within the landscapes”. It made for a perfect setting, along with some subdued lighting, to the moving and deep resonance of Callahan’s music.
The set list tonight was mostly made up of three albums produced under his name and not under the Smog moniker as he had used for so many in his past. He dropped the Smog name because he ‘felt it was conveying an image in people’s minds that he did not intend to do”. Whatever the reason, the songs he has composed on Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle, Apocalypse and his latest, Dream River show the man at the peak of his creative talents. Add in an especially interesting cover of Easy Wind by The Grateful Dead and no one but some deep Smog fans could fault the choices.
Callahan’s use of simple words and language in his compositions make the space between the words delivered and the emotion imbued catch your head and heart. Although simple, as in songs like the languid “Small Plane” or dreamy “Winter Road”, the playing and singing tonight seemed to fill the room with a warm and electric feeling of community. Wit and depth and immaculate playing wrapped each composition up sweetly and the reception was returned from this adoring Opera House Theatre audience.
The Dream River Band has reached a period of longevity where their playing appears to be fairly organic. Although Callahan leads the band, their interaction is seamless. The guitar solos that Matt Kinsey enticed out of his Gibson on songs like ‘America!’, ‘Ride My Arrow’ and others were mesmerising. There were moments of sweet psychedelic beauty that were not over powering but transcendent. Sometimes it felt that Kinsey’s solos were being played from another room, not overly loud, but clearly hypnotic and beautifully imagined.
This electricity from Kinsey’s guitar was moulded around the sound of Callahan’s acoustic guitar. The rhythm section of Jamie Zuverza on lightly played bass and the stripped back drumming and kit of Adam Jones was all that was needed to deliver well over two hours of magic tonight. With Callahan’s baritone taking us on a journey of his dreamscape and this visionary band in tow, everyone was entranced by the meditative nature of the tunes.
Bill Callahan only made one excursion into the exclusion zone towards the audience. His subdued nature and somewhat withdrawn style does not have him connect with his audience on a personal level as an entertainer. The reflective and somewhat trance like nature of his work is what brings you closer to the man and his nature. We may not know him but we feel we could. If he would just get a little bit closer and whisper something to us with that other worldly baritone we might just understand the beauty of his world and ours.