review | Bill Callahan at the Great American Music Hall


Photo Courtesy of Hanly Banks

Photo Courtesy of Hanly Banks

A Bill Callahan performance is an intimate experience. His music is often simple, with calculated flourishes and plainspoken lyrics that explore complex emotions. In a live setting, Bill Callahan will gently strum his guitar with a look as stoic as his vocal delivery. The instrumentation of his band has been varied on each of his tours. It has ranged from six members to only two, giving elasticity to Callahan’s musical arrangements. The adaptive nature of his music makes every tour unique. For instance, a song that has roots in lo-fi garage rock might be rearranged for folk instruments when played live. In fact, there are many musical variations on one of his oldest hits, “Bathysphere.”

On this particular tour, he was joined by an electric guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. Callahan was wearing a black bejeweled blazer and a bolo tie with a decorative steel pendant in the shape of Texas. As the cheering died down, Callahan launched a cover of “White Light,” after which Callahan simply said “That was for Lou Reed.” They filled the rest of their set with songs from his most recent album Dream River. He played most of the album, including a particularly ethereal rendition of “Summer Painter” and “Ride My Arrow” thanks to the textural prowess of guitarist Matt Kinsey. From its previous album, Apocalypse, the band performed “One Fine Morning,” “America,” and “Drover.” Bill Callahan’s deep voice bellowed low in each song, providing a resonance similar to a bass guitar. It was interesting to see the members of the band take cues from him and add their own embellishments to the songs. Callahan did not play many classics, except for the extremely popular “Too Many Birds.”As a treat to long-time fans, he ended his set with “Say Valley Maker”–another song from his former band, Smog.

Throughout the set, Callahan humbly said thank you, and at one point mentioned that San Francisco offered the most “alive” crowd yet on the tour. Bill Callahan has a large back catalogue of music, but seemed intent on focusing on new material despite shouted requests. Towards the end of the set, one fan cried out “Riding for the feeling!” To this, Bill Callahan responded “That will be for tomorrow night” and smiled to himself.


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