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Bill Callahan – Royal Festival Hall, London 07/02/14

11 February 2014, 16:00 | Written by Thomas Hannan

I think – and this is a theory is based on the very slightest of evidence – that Bill Callahan might be enjoying himself up there. It’s not that he’s constantly cracking jokes or smiling or jumping around or singing songs that are particularly jolly. No, he’s not doing any of that (though I do count one joke). But there’s the definite impression being given off that we’re watching a man who is at peace.

Perhaps it’s a result of the confidence that comes with walking on stage to a packed, plush Festival Hall knowing that your newest material is arguably the best you’ve ever written (which, when you’ve spent 15 years having your work under the Smog moniker lauded as some of the finest in the U.S. alt-indie canon, is no mean feat)? And perhaps the fact that the audience seem largely in agreement bolsters Callahan somewhat, too – though there’s many a Smog die hard taking their seat tonight, anticipation seems to be highest for what form songs from last year’s impeccable Dream River might take.

Laughing Bill wastes no time in showing us, opening the set on two of that fine LP’s most glorious moments – the wry barroom musings of “The Sing” and gently driving groove of “Javelin Unlanding”. For the former, the place is deathly silent waiting to hear if Callahan’s enunciation of the words “beer” and “thank you” are going to contain as much blunt power as they do on the record (they do), whereas for the latter, it’s as if the entire South Bank is tapping its feet in unison. The South Bank is on side.

Knowing this, Bill seems to decide he can do whatever he wants, and is right in his assumption. Covers of Ray Charles’ “A Song For You” and Percy Mayfield’s “Send Me Someone To Love” aren’t at all incongruous when handled by this deftly talented band, a group so attuned to just what vehicle Callahan’s voice needs tonight that they have a knack of making every song sound like it could be an original.

Rather than racing through an array of back catalogue classics, the band are at ease enough to jam out the night’s preferred selections at length (often stretching them past the ten minute mark) and talented enough to take our attention with them for the ride (I’m entirely certain nobody would have minded at all if “America” never actually reached a conclusion). Live, Callahan’s is currently a sound with more squall to it than displayed his recent records, but nothing is done for the sake of indulgence, and thanks to this being one of the best buildings in the country to watch such music in, it sounds utterly immaculate.

There’s only one bona fide Smog classic on the set list tonight, that coming in the shape of “Dress Sexy At My Funeral”, a song to which I’m still not sure whether to laugh or cry. But it speaks volumes that the only thing people seem to miss is Dream River standout “Small Plane” – a song that isn’t even a year old. When in such fine form both in the flesh and on record, it’s tempting to suggest that Bill Callahan’s best work might yet be ahead of him, and almost scary to think quite how good that’s going to be.

Photo by Howard Melnyczuk. See the full gallery here.

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