Bill Callahan – Leeds Irish Centre, 5th February 2014
“I’ve got limitations, Like Marvin Gaye”. During ‘The Sing’ – the first staging post on what will become a mesmeric, almost transcendental one hundred and five minute journey across the beautiful landscape that is the artistry and vision of Bill Callahan – these words tumble out as his deep bass voice starts to rumble and resonate. Now some three years older than Gaye was when shot dead by his father, Callahan looks much younger and it is clear from this picture of health he is not drawing parallels between himself and the soul legend’s personal struggles with cocaine addiction. There is, though, a kinship between the two men, one forged through individual failings and imperfections and it is at this point and through the commonalities of their music where the two men connect. Where Marvin Gaye was a soul singer, Bill Callahan sings both from and about the human soul.
‘The Sing’ is also the opening track on Callahan’s Dream River album, no less than his fifteenth studio recording and one that was released last year to universal acclaim. Often associated with lyrical themes of love and regret, life and death and the apparent futility of existence, Dream River finds him in a more relaxed place, more at one with the world that he inhabits. In taking this more panoramic view of his life, Callahan seems much better equipped to move forward.
And it is to Dream River that Callahan continually returns this evening – he performs six of the album’s eight songs – the music’s inherently seductive warmth taking us along with him on this meditative adventure. Such is the spell in which we are cast, and possibly, just briefly, spooked by the total reverence and silence of his surroundings – at previous shows on the tour such was the distraction of extraneous noise he had requested that the bar be closed during his performance – he humorously suggests to us “it is like no-one comes to play music for you ever”. You suspect from his unassuming, slightly uncomfortable on-stage demeanour that Callahan is a far too self-effacing man to expand upon this statement by adding “well, not music as good as this”.
If travel could be captured then ‘Javelin Unlanding’ is surely what it would sound like, the intoxicating momentum of the song just carrying you on and on to some vanishing point in the distance. Into ‘Riding For The Feeling’ it blurs, and for the first and what won’t be the last time tonight Matt Kinsey’s electric guitar propels the music into an altogether different stratosphere of sound. The four men on stage – Callahan remains the only one standing throughout – are as one as “Ride My Arrow’, ‘Drover’, ‘Spring’ merge into each other, the lines between them rendered barely visible such is the unifying peace and serenity that they transmit. ‘Jim Cain’ is effortless perfection.
Even with the punctuation of a vigorous harmonica solo, his re-working of Percy Mayfield‘s old blues ballad ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ remains a graceful exercise in elliptical hypnotism as the song stretches out before us. The spell of an otherwise spiritual experience is broken only by the quasi-patriotic funk of ‘America!’ during which Callahan roll-calls country greats “Captain Kristofferson, Buck Sergeant Newbury, Leatherneck Jones and Sergeant Cash“ in a voice aged by life and reason as it now edges further and further away from those tired Leonard Cohen comparisons to a point where Gil Scott-Heron begins to merge with Terry Callier. Maybe, just maybe, Bill Callahan is really a soul singer after all.
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