Even for a man hailed as the successor to Leonard Cohen, it was a downbeat entrance.
Twenty minutes late, the ground floor bars at the Ritz ballroom closed “at the artist’s request” and four shy figures slide through the curtains to take their places almost reluctantly on stage.
Seated – except for Bill Callahan - their shirts are tucked primly into their trousers. They are unsmiling. For the next 100 minutes, like modern day cowboys staring fixedly into the fire unable to forget a whole bunch of troubles back down the trail – Callahan and his band forge a world so vivid and so incredibly beautiful that their subdued appearance is utterly transcended by the majesty of the music they make.
Although his fifth album Dream River topped many critics’ charts last year a lot of us are only beginning to wake up to Callahan’s extraordinary abilities despite two decades tinkering on the edges of mainstream success.
What instantly stands out, of course, is his slow lugubrious baritone. On the opening track, "The Sing" – a hymn to the dark joys of solo drinking – it resonates and reverberates to spine-tingling effect. The mournful vocal is typically laid over a psychologically tense back track that whilst always erring on the good side of sparsely dissonant will suddenly soar off on some sonic thermal flying us over grand canyons of the spirit. Equally effortlessly it will rock out in a quietly understated but utterly infectious way.
When Callahan gets excited, admittedly hard to tell, he dips slightly at the knees, showing his first hint of animation during "Javelin’s Unlanding" a track which includes the killer opening line “You look like worldwide Armageddon” a plea to a sleeping lover not to abandon him to the cosmic desolation of a life alone. When he gets really fired up, he jogs backwards and forward two steps as he does on "Please Send Me Someone to Love".
Although he confronts all the central themes of the human condition – love, loss, fear, and loneliness – he does so without resort to cliché. Lovers are like co-pilots on Small Plane, swapping controls as they place their fragile lives in each other’s hands in a big empty sky. "Dress Sexy at My Funera"l in which he invokes a surviving partner to recall during her eulogy the times they made love– on the beach with fireworks exploding over their heads, on the railway with gravel in the back or in this very graveyard where he is about to be interred.
True there is no shortage of striking, desolate imagery in Callahan’s lyrics. But it won’t make you depressed. This is music that feels strikingly modern and, dare one say it, uplifting - offering as it does voice for those who choose not to express themselves in the voguish platitudes of social networking culture.
And in the show closer "Winter Road" he offers as convincing a recipe for satisfaction as any ever laid down in popular music: “I’ve learnt when things are beautiful just keep on.”
7-8 February, Royal Festival Hall, London