Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bill Callahan | La Sala Rossa | Sep 9

Border Agent: What is the reason for your visit to Canada?

Me: I'm going to Montreal for a concert.

Border Agent: What concert?

Me: Bill Callahan at La Sala Rossa.

Border Agent: What does he play?

Me: Emotionally dense dark Americana folk-rock.

Border Agent: [long pause with a blank stare] Uh-huh. [longer pause while staring at his computer screen] You appear to come to Canada for a lot for concerts.

Me: Yeh. About once a month.

Border Agent: Uh-huh.

On Sunday night, I caught Bill Callahan (formerly Smog) at La Sala Rossa. Despite owning eleven of the guy's albums, I had never seen him live before. In fact, I don't even recall closely missing a show. Our paths have just never crossed. So, I was excited to see what his live show was like.

I also had never been to La Sala Rossa before and was eager to check out the room. Thankfully, they had my ticket in an envelope at the front door. I had called the club to order the ticket and didn't get a confident feeling that the guy who had taken my order had done much more than write it on the back of a napkin. However, it worked. So, I just need to relax and not expect everything to work with the impersonal efficiency of Ticketmaster.

The room holds about 350 people and was sold out. The sell out is pretty impressive considering that Montreal had hosted the Osheaga Festival that weekend. That meant a lot of indie music fans were probably tired and burned out on music by the time Sunday night rolled around. However, Montreal is a great music scene and people came out in big numbers for the mellow Texan songsmith.

One nice thing about La Sala Rossa was that they had actually taken steps to improve the acoustics of the room as opposed to some of the art galleries I've been seeing shows in recently. They have curtains covering the walls and acoustic tiles on the ceiling to deaden the cross vibrations. Along with a good sound system, the show sounded grand.

While I was waiting for the opening act, Sir Richard Bishop, I was enjoying the music the house was playing over the sound system. It sounded like Lou Reed but I didn't recognize any of the songs. So, I asked the guy manning the soundboard and he said it was Lou Reed's Coney Island Baby. Then he added a slight zinger by saying, "It's a classic album." I guess that's a hole in my musical knowledge because I wasn't familiar with the album. Regardless, it was a good album to enjoy while waiting for the show. Plus, I picked it up the next night.

I don't have much to say about Sir Richard Bishop. He would have killed at Gerde's Folk City in 1961. From the applause he received, I think a lot of people enjoyed his set. However, I didn't swoon for his combination of traditional folk tunes and classical guitar pieces; not mixed into the same songs but intermittently back-and-forth between classical instrumental pieces and songs about hobos. It just didn't do it for me.

Conversely, I loved Bill Callahan's set. Here was the set list, as I remember it:

River Guard
Cold Blooded Old Times
Say Valley Maker
Mother of the World
Rock Bottom Riser
Let Me See the Colts
Diamond Dancer

Honeymoon Child
The Well
In the Pines

"River Guard" was a nice surprise. I wasn't sure how far back in his catalog he was going to go, so to hear a tune off of Knock Knock was a treat. Having said that, I like his most recent albums as much, if not more, than his earlier stuff. So, I was happy to get a set chock full of songs off of Woke on a Whaleheart and A River Ain't Too Much to Love.

I took a spot on the floor about twenty feet out from the stage and dead center between the two banks of speakers. The sound at that spot was fantastic. Everything blended together without anything overwhelming the rest. The sound of the show was assisted by its low volume. Callahan had a bassist, drummer and violinist with him but they didn't seem to feel the need to "rock out". The most important parts of his music are the vocals and all of the small atmospheric sounds running through the background. If they had cranked up the volume, they would have lost both of those elements. Thankfully, they were experienced enough to understand this because the show sounded beautiful at the lower decibels.

One other thing that help the sound of the show was the audience. There wasn't so much as a peep out of anyone throughout the show. Everyone was completely respectful of the show. It was great.

Watching Callahan on stage is a study in minimalized movement. Some would say he's stiff with his lack of motion coupled with his combed hair, tucked in shirt, belt and unwrinkled pants. However, that would imply he seemed uncomfortable on stage which wouldn't be true. It was more a portrait of efficiency in action. While playing guitar, he'd make a few facial expressions during the more heightened moments of the songs and struck a few rock-n-roll poses that seemed more parody than rocking. However, most of the time, he'd hold his position staring straight ahead until it came time to direct the band through a change or end of the song. At those times, he'd slowly turn to his band and notify them of the change with a mere raised eyebrow and nearly imperceptible nod of the head. It sounds weird but his unyielding control seemed to work well with his songs.

The drummer was also pretty impressive to watch. In addition to playing the drums, he also played the melodica at the same time. He had a long plastic tube connected to the melodica which he blew into. So, with his right hand, he'd be drumming, with his left, he'd be playing the keys of the melodica and then he'd be controlling his breathing to keep a constant flow of air through the melodica. Pretty damn amazing. I have trouble talking on the phone and typing at the same time. The idea of doing what he was doing is completely foreign to me.

On the way home, the US border agent mentioned that he had spoken to a number of people crossing back into the US after being at the Osheaga Festival all day. I'm glad to hear some Vermonters went up for the shows. The agent then asked if he could search my trunk. I guess they don't believe that I go to concerts when I cross the border for a few hours every week. Yeh, I can understand their suspicion.

Note: I forgot my camera at home. So, the photo above is not from the Montreal show. It's from the Boston show the night before. However, it looks identical to my view of the Montreal show and you can see the drummer's rig. The photo is courtesy of Fats Superhead.


Tanner M. said...

Sorry i missed that - i was having a bad weekend, and worse after reading your review and hear that he played Bowery - god i love that song.

jay said...

I envy your ability to get to so many shows. You must have a really flexible work schedule or the energy of a six-year old strung out on candy bars.

Either way, it's great and I wish I could be so musically productive. I'm still patting myself on the back for making it out to a measly half-dozens shows this summer.

Chris Boyd said...

I only had to cross state lines to see my first Bill Callahan concert, in Sydney last week. But it was well worth 500-odd miles each way. (And was rewarded with two songs from Knock Knock.)

I realised you've got your hands full with this RIAA shit, but I was wondering if you could help me identify two songs so I can post a set-list?

The first song had a "which way'd she go?" line. The second had the line "steppin' out for air."

I've googled MAO without success. Any ideas?

Cheers, and thanks for the great review.

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