It's rather amusing to arrive at a Bill Callahan show fifteen minutes before he's due to take the stage only to find out the bar has already been drunk dry.
This is, after all, a man who managed to make an entire verse of "The Sing" consist only of the words "beer", and "thank you", a conversation so many of tonight's attendees seem to have had with the bar staff that they've run out of the stuff. Still, there's cider left, and we make do because you just have to in times like these, don't you.
Callahan's music fits well with a booze, sure, but it doesn't need it. An hour and a half in the company of no stimuli other than his weary, beautiful music and I'm pretty sure all of Minor Threat would be feeling a little tiddly and in need of a hug. Appearing at the simultaneously grand yet intimate Hoxton Hall tonight (7th May), he's accompanied by just a hero of a lead guitar player in Matt Kinsey, and refreshingly doesn't seem to have anything to push other than the fact that he's still around and continues to be very good at this. And in doing this alone, he can play with your emotions like a puppet master.
As it turns out, we needed this timely reminder of his genius. Unexpected gifts like a cover of The Carter Family's "Walk that Lonesome Valley" and heartbreaking folk standard "Matty Groves" were lovely surprises, but things we should have kept constantly aware of – like the fact that "America" is the best indie folk epic of the current decade, and that "I'm New Here" is a great song that exists and he rather than Gil Scott Heron does the much better version of it – are now happily in the forefront of our minds.
Throughout, gazes are kept firmly on his face. Bill Callahan's constantly contorting face, malleable as putty mid song and steely between them, its dramatic movements perhaps as responsible for the sound of his inimitably deep voice as any other of his physical attributes. Does he speak like Geddy Lee in normal conversation, when his cheeks and eyebrows aren't conjuring up that baritone drawl from the depths of his being? None of us can ever know.
Callhan ends the gig by taking requests and seems to instantly regret the offer, finishing on a reluctantly but perfectly performed version of Smog's/his "Dress Sexy at my Funeral". To be fair to the guy who shouted for it, it's what everyone in the crowd wanted, if not perhaps Bill himself. In all, it's hard to imagine what a better Bill Callhan gig could have been like, even with a better prepared bar.