Thursday, May 03, 2007

Smog clears

Bill Callahan/Felix, Leicester Y Theatre, 1st May

It must be said the promotion for this gig left something to be desired. Indeed, I only found out about it on passing the Y Theatre window to see if they had a poster up for a later event at the venue three days before. In the event a quick headcount revealed forty people in attendance for a rare Midlands visit - rare UK visit, come to think - by one of America's most influential alternative singer-songwriters. We should have swapped addresses and agreed to meet up every year.

Felix are chiefly the not unphotogenic Lucinda Chua behind keyboards and a guitarist called Chris whose provides Cocteau Twins/Mercury Rev at their drowsiest-type atmospherics armed with a brigade of effects pedals. At least that's the plan, Chua having to watch intently while playing at times as the guitar is affected by pretty much everything malfunctioning at some point during the half hour. When it all coalesces something quietly impressive happens, as Chua's Regina Spektor-style evolving runs on the keys meld with the fragile atmospherics and her soft vocal style - she has a large notebook open next to her which she never seems to refer to, curiously - spilling semi-cryptic observations and feelings - not for nothing is their opener called Death To Everyone But Us - in a style that brings to mind Martha Wainwright, Cat Power and the antifolk likes of Emmy The Great. Something quietly impressive, barring technical problems, unfolds, which were I a proper journalist I'd describe as 'half-awake spooked wonderings' or somesuch. Also, final song What I Learned From TV's heart-on-sleeve run through of regrets drops into the middle the wish to "hear that guy's voice off Trans World Sport", surely the long overdue first Bruce Hammal reference in popular song.

"Nice place you got here. Is the balcony open?" Bill Callahan seems to be making himself at home already, having divested himself of footwear, although surely he could have worked out that there was little need for the balcony to be opened with these few people here. Which, again, is a shame - after seventeen years and eleven albums of introspective, blackly humorous, often bleak storytelling in his trademark deadpan, lugubrious baritone (and at least two relationships female alternative figureheads, currently being by Joanna Newsom's side after a previous collaboration with Chan 'Cat Power' Marshall) over a sonic palette that grew from ultra lo-fi to sprawling alt-folk-country under the bandname Smog he's grown an small but significant gang of admirers from afar. His new album Woke On A Whaleheart may have come out under his own name and be his most melodically approachable to date but the self-built lyrical personality remains shrouded in enigma. Most of that album gets an outing here, Callahan fronting a four piece band, notably including Jonathan Meiburg of dark folk fellow travellers Shearwater (and the last remaining great American intelligent college indie outfit band not to make the UK breakthrough, Okkervil River) on piano, as the subtle depths of the record get drawn out - a special mention in this regard to violinist Elizabeth Warren, who more than matches her recorded contribution to the string-driven tracks - and stripped back to their deceptively simple arrangements and Callahan's freeform lyrical prose, notably with an interesting leaning towards bodies of water. Must be a metaphor.

For such a stoic, deadpan singer, and one who it must be said is weathering the years well, Callahan does occasionally break into a curious set of movements, including running on the spot, Elvis shimmies and a curious knees forward and chest forward rock god pose. He's enjoying himself, and partly consequently so are we. The songs and arrangements flow freely but well drilled enough, Callahan occasionally turning back to guide his band to carry on or slow down with nods of the head, always drawing the listener in. One sequence, starting with the new album's Night and continuing through a slightly reworked Cold Blooded Old Times (probably his most famous song, having been a Mark Radcliffe Radio 1 afternoon favourite and in the High Fidelity soundtrack) and the sprawling, emotionally charged Say Valley Maker and Rock Bottom Riser from previous record A River Ain't Too Much To Love, coalesces to take the breath away. As almost hoedown closer A Man Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man draws out to a conclusion, you can't help but feel for those who weren't here to witness a master low-key craftsman go about his business at the confident top of his game.


Blogger Ben said...

40 people?!! That's pathetic. No wonder most of those sort of gigs go to Nottingham rather than Leicester...

3:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was a Nottingham promoter who booked this one.

8:39 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Any idea why Leicester was chosen over Nottingham as a venue, then? Doesn't seem to make sense to me - there are plenty of places in Nottingham where I'm sure Callahan would have been assured of a decent crowd.

11:04 pm  
Blogger Simon said...


Actually, I must put in a word for whoever's now booking for the Y Theatre - as I said a while back as it's always seemed to specialise in jazz, rhythm'n'blues and tribute acts I'd been to two gigs there in seven years before this year, and it'll be four 2007 visits there by the end of May, not including Stephen Fretwell next week.

4:56 pm  

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