Bill Callahan at The Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 February 2014

Having completely fallen in love with the brilliance of Apocalypse (see my review here), I was a little disappointed by Dream River, Bill Callahan’s more recent album.  It seemed a little too amorphous, the loose arrangements a little too free and unstructured.  It took a couple of listens before I was comfortable with its songs, but by this time I had long ago booked to see him live in London – not that it put me off the event at all.

Royal Festival HallThis was my first visit to The Royal Festival Hall – the only remaining structure from the 1951 Festival of Britain, which rejuvenated the bombed-out south bank of the Thames (and now an icon if British architecture and design).

As usual to a music event, I took a couple of ear-plugs (just in case), but the sound was ideal, not too loud and perfectly balanced – it was lovely to be able to hear the music completely un-muffled.

Before the main event there was a half-hour set by Alisdair Roberts, a Scottish folk singer-songwriter – it was ok, but all the songs were quite similar and of the same mood throughout.

What is wonderful about Callahan’s words and music is the way they evoke a whole landscape, a mood, state of mind and place.  It feels like the aural equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting, perfectly formed worlds that extend way beyond the edge of the canvas.  At first it was fascinating to hear how this world was constructed with such a simple arrangement of two guitars, bass guitar and a minimal drum set, but once you recognized the tricks and motifs which formed the music and lyrics, the mystery of it became a little less mysterious.  What was particularly disappointing was the too frequent moments of self-indulgence.

Bill CallahanI have no problem with self-indulgence in music – a little here and there is fine, and with a genre like Prog. Rock it’s positively called for in excess.  What is not called for is repeated and extended interludes of noise within the style of music that Bill Callahan creates.  Although it does surface briefly and occasionally (and effectively) within songs on the albums, the live feedback-noodling was over-done and detracted from the delicacy of the songs.

He ended by mentioning that he’d visited the Tate Modern that afternoon and riffed off the word Tate to the rhythm at the end of the last song.  It didn’t really work very well (although some people were amused – there’s always some!) and it was a disappointingly self-indulgent way end to the evening’s performance.

Do not take from this review that it was not a good performance (but I can understand it if you do!) – the band had a fantastic sound and played a wide selection of songs from the last two albums and beyond, and I was more than satisfied in that respect, but at the same time it did not wow me as it really should have done.

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