Bill Callahan Leaves Albuquerque Awestruck

Bill Callahan‘s music is suiting to the high desert of central New Mexico, where he played last week to a packed crowd in Albuquerque. The evening was frigid – the town had barely seen rain for weeks and the venue where Callahan was supposed to play had nearly been torched a week before by a five-alarm fire next door. Albuquerque in winter feels down-and-out. Sunlight hardly helps make the dead cottonwood trees less sinister and lonesome. The night Callahan played, the whole town felt like a song from his catalog.

Callahan needs little accompaniment to his carnival of melodrama. Yet he’s touring with arguably one of the most neurotic, darkness-fueled artists he could have asked for: Jonathan Meiburg of the band Shearwater. Meiburg began his set a cappela – his voice, far more elastic than Callahan’s, was evocative of both Gram Parsons and 16 Horsepower’s David Eugene Edwards. From the first moment of the set, Meiburg wailed like a woman calling for an ambulance.

Shearwater’s Rook comes out in July on Matador Records, and if its frontman’s solo set was any indication, the album will be a sparse, operatic collection of songs about birds and lost youth (Meiburg, sings about and studied ornithology in college). Meiburg played the banjo and a hollow-bodied electric guitar for most of his set, with nothing but his own self-created atmosphere backing him.

By the time Callahan took the stage, the audience had settled into a stony, studious silence. This was not the frat crowd looking to sing along with “Cold Blooded Old Times” (featured prominently on the High Fidelity soundtrack). This was a serious bunch.

Which is fitting, since Callahan is a serious guy. Clad in a black suit and backed by Meiburg on guitar and Shearwater percussionist Thor Harrison drums (both of whom also outfitted in black suits), the man formerly known as Smog commanded the stage with “Our Anniversary.” He played a parlor guitar, smaller than a standard acoustic and almost silly-looking compared to Callahan’s physical and vocal presence. Small as the instrument was, his voice was disproportionately huge. After seeing him play at the Echo Lounge in Atlanta eight years ago, I was a little let down by Callahan’s wallflower-like presence on stage. In Albuquerque last Wednesday, he was a veritable lion before the audience.

Age has something to do with it. Callahan’s inimitable baritone has grown deeper and richer since his early experiments (most notably on albums Julius Caesar and Wild Love). His hair is greyer and the past few years have seen him rise from indie darling to one of Drag City Records’ most reliable artists. Callahan’s songwriting has also gained stronger footing; his current set features well-chosen tracks from Supper and Woke on a Whaleheart, countrified numbers that marry his love for Jandek with traditional song structures. Not that Callahan’s gone all pop. Rather, he’s learned how to cultivate his sound, creating a vibe that left the audience awestruck.

– Mark Sanders