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Smog - Conway Hall, London, 19/9/2004

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 24 / 9 / 2004

Smog - Conway Hall, London, 19/9/2004


Smog aka Bill Callahan has never been on record the happiest of musicians. On the second night of the two day Homefires festival, and supported by the likes of Adem and Joanna Newsom, Dominic Simpson finds him on gloomy, but also confusing form

Over two days the Homefires festival has been taking place at the beautiful surroundings of London’s Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square near Farringdon. Ornate and baroque, aesthetically it’s the perfect venue for the kind of intimate music on display over Saturday and Sunday, the result of promoters Adem, Domino Records and Eat Your Own Ears. Yesterday had the Memory Band, Micah P. Hinson, Juana Molina, Adem, Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals (filling in with a solo set after Low’s Alan Sparkhawk had to withdraw because of visa clearance problems), Scottish folk legend Bert Jansch, and – in the headline slot – Beth Orton. Today has an equally impressive line-up, but first is probably the least-known band of the festival, Meon. Featuring members of Adem, they play summery pop in a Belle and Sebastian vein, embellished with violin, quite pattering drums, and acoustic guitar. Only 19 years old, Willy Mason plays to the bare minimum, with just a folk guitar and his ringing voice. One song is precluded by a long explanation of it’s subject matter, the insects that bite in the area of the State he originates from, before tossing off lines like “The sun don’t set in Gettysville, the place where I call home / A thousand people walk these streets, but we’re still all alone”. With something of the young Bob Dylan about him, he’s been roped in with the New York ‘antifolk’ scene even though it becomes clear half way in his set that he fits more in the Palace Brothers confessional mould. By the time Adem himself plays – fulfilling his second performance of the festival after yesterday - the audience are en masse sitting down, and as the lights dim and the room is candlelit it makes for a unique, emotional atmosphere. Fronting a four piece and playing songs from his recent 'Homesongs' album (which this all-dayer has presumably been christened after) Adem’s music has the obvious echoes of Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, but the beautiful arrangments - with it’s mixture of acoustic guitars, doubleharp, and keyboards and what looks like a zither – equally recall the lo-fi, idiosyncratic feel of Pram. ‘Ringing In My Ear’ is a pitch-perfect highlight. It has some beautiful hypnotic percussion and the band chanting “I could give you a reason / I’ve got thousands waiting here.” Though their decision to play a long set leaves the mind wandering during the last, extended workout, it’s still impressive stuff. The presence of a huge harp at the back of the stage has been a source of intrigue all day. Joanna Newsom’s set turns out to be one of the most extraordinary of the day: just her unforgettable, spider like intricate harp playing and bizarre voice. “Eccentric’ doesn’t even come close: evoking the voice of a 12 year-old pixie stuck in an attic, her lyrics run the gamut from dead worms, spiders, and shafts of wheat, all delivered in a tumbling, alliterative style, tossing off lines like “you’re skin is something that I stir into my tea”. There really is nothing quite like this around, and her uniqueness is emphasised by the tumbling harp lines, completely at odd with modern rock music in general. She holds the audience spellbound throughout her entire set. While most of the line-up today consists of fairly new artists, Chicago’s Smog – or (Smog), as Bill Callahan likes to officially designate his moniker, perhaps as some kind of existential reference to the music coming before him as an individual - is an old hand. First emerging in the late 80’s with cassette only releases with names like 'Cow', he’s progressed through countless albums from a lo-fi aesthetic to eventually a more cinematic, accessible sound. Callahan’s introverted, solipsist music lyrically runs the gamut from alienation, black humour, discordant observations and strange fetishes, often dominated by the theme of failed relationships (as typified on 'Chosen One', requested by audience hecklers here but not played) not too far close behind. His music itself has alternated between low-fi, claustrophobic simple blues and, particularly on albums like 'Knock Knock' and the recent 'Supper', towards a more rockier, recognisable sound. Tonight, though, it’s just him and his acoustic guitar, and you can practically hear a pin drop in the silence resonating from the audience. Never smiling at the audience, it’s claustrophobic, intense, and hard work in places. Mostly eschewing a whole set of his back catalogue, he instead debuts a whole batch of new songs, though in their skeletal acoustic state it’s difficult to ascertain how they will eventually turn out on Callahan’s next record. Always lyrically morbid, one seems to be about a ménage a trois with his parents (judging from the line “to do it with your ma and pa” anyway); another seems to concern with black humour his Irish parentage; lines like “it’s murder” on other songs suggest that he won’t be rivalling The Shins any time soon for upbeat pop songs. Eventually relenting to play some of his greatest hits, he asks the crowd for requests, and is greeted by calls for 'Chosen One', 'I Break Horses', 'Ex-Con' and others; ever the perverse performer, though, he elects to try a brilliant run through 'Bathysphere' and, from the 'Dongs of Sevotion' album, 'Bloodflow' and 'Dress Sexy At My Funeral'. While it’s always a treat to hear such songs, the unmistakable feeling seems to be that he seems unhappy up there; of course, Smog has never been the chirpiest musician on record, but onstage he seems to almost not be enjoying it, as if he doesn’t really want to be here. You can’t help but think that maybe next time, when accompanied by a full band, might Callahan’s gloomy world, with its strange logic and bizarre idiosyncrasies, really make sense.

Picture Gallery:-
Smog - Conway Hall, London, 19/9/2004

Smog - Conway Hall, London, 19/9/2004

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