Three years after his last visit Bill Callahan made the step up from the Academy to the Olympia. It’s been long, slow, steady progress over 20 years or so and, while the gig was not sold-out, empty seats were few and far between in the old venue.
The support act was folk duo Cath & Phil Tyler, who came on like a north of England, less accomplished version of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. With most of the singing duties handled by Cath, they performed 19th/early 20th century Appalachian-style folk duets like Queen Sally and Dying Boy. Alternating between accapella and guitar and voice tracks, the pair had a curious, ‘olde-world’ style charm, like a cross between the Handsome Family and the Waltons.
Callahan and his band opened with The Sing and Javelin Unlanding from recent album Dream River. Without violins and flutes, the band relied heavily on Bill Callahan’s rhythm guitar playing, supported by licks from Matt Kinsey, and, above all, Callahan’s rich baritone. Although the set relied mainly on his more recent solo work, he dipped into his Smog back catalogue for a slowed down, stripped back version of Dress Sexy At My Funeral.
The somewhat ponderous Dream River material allowed the band’s more self-indulgent side to shine through, but older songs Drover and One Fine Morning lapsed completely into messy jams, the latter ruined by the lurching, stop-start fret play. America! was punctuated by Callahan’s harmonica groans, and Kinsey’s endless guitar squalls, dragging the song out to mind-numbing lengths, much to the enjoyment of the band, though it’s fair to say not all the audience shared this.
Small Plane and Winter Road were more sensitively handled, and encores of Rock Bottom Riser ended the evening with something of a flourish. It seems to this reviewer that domestic bliss has impacted on Callahan’s art, as shown on Dream River and this decidedly mixed evening. Still, it’ll be interesting to see where he goes next.