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Bill Callahan - Union Chapel, London, 20/8/2009

  by Chris O'Toole

published: 27 / 8 / 2009

Bill Callahan - Union Chapel, London, 20/8/2009


Chris O'Toole finds former Smog star, Bill Callahan, despite a new found buoyancy, aloof and rigid with his audience at a show at the Union Chapel in London

The capacity crowd at the Union Chapel is here to worship a different kind of visionary prophet tonight, with Jesus Christ taking a backseat to indie rock deity Bill Callahan. Simultaneously undergoing a career renaissance and personal rejuvenation, Callahan has dropped his dour Smog moniker and now performs under his own name. The change has seen a recalibration of the elements in his repertoire; with optimistic magnetism now shedding light on previously opaque, introverted material. That said sardonic wit, irreverent humour and deadpan delivery are still the focus of the show. Arriving under delicate pink light – elegantly provided by the stain glass windows surrounding the stage – Callahan appears in playful mood. A simple "Hello" starts proceedings before he launches into several pieces from the recent 'Woke on a Whale Heart' and 'Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle' albums. While Callahan's own guitar playing is augmented by drums, violin and cello as well as a second guitarist, it is his voice which remains the star of the performance. The honeyed tones belie the bittersweet content of his finest work, with wry observations dissecting the intricacies of love and loss liberally included. An early highlight is Callahan's cover of Kathy Bloom's 'The Breeze/My Baby Cries'. Originally recorded earlier this year for the 'Loving Takes Its Course' tribute album – which also featured such luminaries as Mark Kozelek, Josephine Foster and Devendra Banhart - the track is haunting in its description of the emotional toll taken by heartbreak; fitting perfectly with Callahan's oeuvre. When supporting act Sophia Knapp joins Callahan for a duet, however, the obvious difference in class leaves Knapp looking exposed. While the live performance lacks some of the atmosphere of Callahan's recorded output, the crowd is willing to indulge his eccentricities. For non-believers the poker-faced delivery and 1,000 mile stare can, however, get a little grating. Even with his new buoyancy Callahan remains aloof, unable to lead his congregation to the redemption they seek. A fine singer-songwriter, but perhaps better enjoyed on record than in a rigid live performance.

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Bill Callahan - Union Chapel, London, 20/8/2009

Bill Callahan - Union Chapel, London, 20/8/2009

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