Near the end of Bill Callahan's set at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat last Friday night, a drunken heckler apparently disappointed by the performer's sturdy tranquility shouted out, "Bring it up a notch!" To which the dry-witted Callahan responded, "Bring what up a notch?"
Both the heckler's taunt and the singer's ironic retort fall into the murky cross-currents that are the attempts by fans and critics alike to get at and unearth the root of Callahan's enigmatic career, now going on 20 years. The guy who started out as a sinister Jim O'Rourke-collaborator and noise-inclined bruiser has moved slowly toward more open alt-country pastures as his hair has grayed and his voice has grown a deeper baritone. It may be an unforgivable cliché to claim that some rocker has "mellowed" with age, but hasn't Bill Callahan? Isn't that what the heckler, drunk and raging at the back of the room, was complaining about? Callahan's response may have been off the cuff, but you could draw a conclusion from it, provided you weren't drunk too: Something doesn't have to be louder or angrier in order to be more intense. The very next song Callahan played, "Eid Ma Clack Shaw," an eerie, swirling heartbreak saga off his latest album, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, and the arguably the best thing he has written in some time, served as a further rebuke to the knock that anything needed turning "up."
There's a lyric on Eagle that's become a red herring of sorts for those of us inclined to scrawl a narrative across a career of diverse records; it comes on the opening track "Jim Cain," when Callahan sings, "I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again." Ah, we tell ourselves contentedly, Callahan is talking about how in his early days, recording under the moniker Smog, he was swimming in some very gloomy waters, and then near the end of that period and through the first album he released under his given name, his worldview suddenly brightened, but now he has delved into the pitch-black again with this new album. That's an easy read, but it gets hard to defend when considering the lilting "Ex-Con" of the "dark" Red Apple Falls, or the morbid "Say Valley Maker" from the "lighter" A River Ain't Too Much Love, or the reverent "Rococo Zephyr" from the "dark again" Eagle. The truth is not that Callahan is spending years cowering on one side of the shadow line in between crossovers; rather, he's perpetually straddling both sides, check-marked with black and light, evil and good, sadness and happiness.
The Callahan live experience inspires a mongrel set of emotional reactions. Throughout the show I wavered between being struck motionless or being moved to headbang my head off its hinges. The backing band—consisting of cellist, violinist, rhythm guitarist, and drummer—was well-equipped to cover Callahan's broad palette of feeling, from the lockstep haze of "Bathysphere" to the bucolic balladry of "Sycamore." The cello especially, which Callahan has employed on and off throughout his career, made its presence felt in a big way, highlighting the subtle streak of malice running through the chorus of "Our Anniversary" and billowing up beneath "The Wind and the Dove." But the most spectacular instrument on display was surely Callahan's unique vox. Straining with the same facial contortions as a muscleman lugging a boulder up a hill, Callahan deployed his baritone with staggering precision. At the rare moments when he let his voice air out a little and approach a full wail, during the songs "Diamond Dancer" and "Let Me See the Colts," the effect was mesmerizing. Kind of like the majestic rivers, trees, and birds frequently mentioned in his songs, Callahan's voice was something to behold.
In his review of Eagle, fellow Slant writer Jesse Cataldo compared Callahan to a tree. Extending the metaphor, I would say that Callahan performing live is like a tree rustling in the wind. The guy who seems so in control of himself on record comes across in person as one utterly in thrall to his own music. In addition to the facial grimaces, he periodically throws his legs out in half-kicks, kneels down to the floor, and backs off and re-approaches the microphone as if he were trying to catch it by surprise. These tics, and the deadpan humor in between songs, make for a surprisingly charming stage presence, despite his black-hearted material.
Moments before kicking into his final song of the night, Callahan asked the partially ungrateful audience, "Do you remember the past?" I guess it was a rhetorical question, not to mention a perfect lead in to his rugged anthem "Cold-Blooded Old Times." But for Callahan, it bears stressing the past has a blunt potency that never fades. On "Eid Ma Clack Shaw," he bemoans that "all these fine memories are fucking me down." "Cold-Blooded Old Times," Callahan's greatest fist-shaker, is about riding out a long-ago hurt, a song that melds Velvet Underground and Johnny Cash and which brought the audience definitively under his sway.
Earlier in the night, the same heckler who had complained about Callahan's intensity level had shouted, "Play some old stuff!" He got his wish with "Cold-Blooded," an old song about old times. What the heckler didn't understand is that Callahan is always playing the old stuff, that even the new stuff rehashes old thoughts to fresher ends. Callahan's distinct artistry is evolving so that for every old fan he turns off, he picks up two new ones. The hecklers, like those old memories, are stomped into the pavement and make up the road down which he travels.