Bill Callahan, Barbican Centre, London
Wednesday 11 May 2011
Animals are a recurrent presence in Bill Callahan's songs. Cattle, bees, birds, buffalo and horses abound, romping through his oeuvre either literally or as strange metaphors – as in "Universal Applicant" from his new album, Apocalypse, in which a small menagerie laughs at the singer as he manages to burn his own boat with a flare gun.
Elsewhere on the album, he imagines himself a drover herding his cattle to market, while a further layer of earthy, floral imagery cements his position as a poet of the natural world, a latter-day Wordsworth, with bucolic scenes prompting philosophical ruminations on love, life and death. "There is no love where there is no bramble", runs one such observation, while in "Baby's Breath" a metaphor warns against the over-zealous gardening of relationships ("she was not a weed, she was a flower").
It's just as well Callahan's songs are so fecund with natural life, as his own onstage presence remains notably lifeless. Despite performing now for a decade and a half, he's developed no discernible audience rapport, and offers nothing in the way of staging: just himself in a white suit with an acoustic guitar, occasionally lifting a foot or hopping from one to the other as the music carries him. Even his lead guitarist plays sitting down, while across from Callahan, side on to the audience, his drummer percusses gently. Thankfully, both sidemen are brilliantly responsive to the internal drama of Callahan's songs, Matt Kinsey squeezing little tics and whines of feedback and distortion from his guitar, while Neal Morgan adopts a range of unusual methods – damping a tom-tom by draping it with a cloth, patting the skins with his bare hands, etc – to animate the action.
Alongside old favourites like "The Well" and "Our Anniversary", most of the set is drawn from the new album, Callahan's warm baritone welcoming us with "Riding for the Feeling" – typically, a song of how to say goodbye – before riding with sardonic pride through "America!" and the hypnotic Western momentum of "Drover", the most exciting moment of the evening. But it's the quirky reflection of "Free's" that captures the crux of his art, a gently cantering groove in which, typically, he finds himself static, "standing in a field of questions, as far as the eye can see – is this what it means to be free?"
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