The truth is, I haven't followed Bill Callahan's career all that closely for the past 10 years or so. The last album of his I owned was Smog's Wild Love, back in 1995, which I admired but never really loved. It turns out that since then, while doin' the wild thing with indie chanteuses like Chan Marshall and Joanna Newsom, Callahan has developed into a fine songwriter and a damn fine performer to boot.
Who better to escort me to Friday's performance than my friend Madeline, an avowed Bill Callahan lover who was seeing him for the sixth time? I figured she could fill me in on the kinds of details only a purist would care about (like the fact that he played an encore, which is apparently very rare), while I focused on the larger issues, namely: Did the show suck? The answer is no, though opener Jonathan Meiburg (who later joined Callahan as his second guitarist) was a bit much with his a cappella renditions of what sounded like Scottish dirges. We chose to chat about Madeline's architecture career during most of his set, only to roughly elbow our way to the front as Callahan took the stage.
There's nothing showy about Callahan's live presence. Though he does give off a vibe similar to a Southern Methodist minister's son who has been taken over by the devil's music, it's in the most understated way. He punctuates his flat vocals and straightforward guitar playing with three signature moves: (1) deep crouches (2) knee-knocking and (3) something Madeline and I dubbed "kicky steps," in which he spastically kicks one black-booted foot behind him. There are no other flourishes of showmanship of which to speak.
This is not a bad thing, because the band sounded good enough to sustain our interest. Callahan was joined on stage by a hirsute percussionist whose drum kit sounded majestic and snappy, and Meiburg, who had his own signature move: the ability to intensely and vigorously strum at lightning speed during extended crescendos during which he fell to his knees with a pained expression.
Most of the songs were from Callahan's recent albums. My favorites were the large, staccato sound of "Diamond Dancer," the hypnotic ballad "Say Valley Maker" and "Cold Blooded Old Times," from 1999's Knock Knock, to which Madeline and I dosey-doed.
By evening's end, we concurred: It was a solid, satisfying performance by a consummate professional.