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With Bill Callahan due back in two months, Wind Back Wednesday takes a short step back, to the last time he passed through and left me speechless.

Bill Callahan

Opera House, May 29, 2015

Vivid Live

It was all about the space. The space between notes, between beats, between breaths.

Sometimes those spaces stretched to a barely visible horizon, beyond the richly textured coastal landscape paintings of local artist Paul Ryan which were projected behind the band.

Songs spun out enticingly in extended jams that were part jazz explorations and part Grateful Dead extrapolations that didn’t have end points so much as acceptances of arrival.

Sometimes the space was the thinking in “conversations” between the musicians.

Drummer Adam Jones was constantly shifting with hands and brushes (no kick drum – this was scatterings not poundings) asking questions, pushing energy when the almost Krautrock pulsing builds were constructed, letting everything breathe.

Bill Callahan on acoustic might respond in small flurries and light taps while electric guitarist Matt Kinsey (early on) would wait and then delicately finesse an answer and seek a response, before (later in the night) building elaborate curlicues and fascinating structures on top of the rhythms, putting me in mind of a minimalist Nels Cline, but always having more in reserve.

Meanwhile, bassist Jamie Zuverza seemed to say next to nothing, long pauses interrupted by a brief comment and then not an extra word. But each thing he said had meaning, had context, and his restraint was the epitome of the band’s playing.

So often the space was the air between Callahan’s words, delivered in a cruising baritone, landing with soft punches.

Pictures were captured in bare outlines but filled with imagined detail; humour, wry and dry, dotted the slender tales. At all times you were captured in light but enveloping thread.

So much so that you would become so immersed in the hypnotic rhythm, so gripped by the bits not played that time lost meaning.

I checked my watch at what I thought was the half hour mark only to realise we were 90 minutes into the show. I checked my watch again when they finally left us and there was small change left in the third hour but I’d not noticed. In fact was hoping for more.

Even more than Morrissey and Sufjan Stevens, far more than Royal Headache and Daniel Johns, this show divided audiences in this first week of Vivid Live.

Its length, its relatively narrow focus on a part of his long career, its placement in the Opera House, the band being set up so far back from the audience, the repetitive nature of the tempos/melodies/tone/length and even some suggestions Callahan was somewhat indifferent (“not suggesting he phoned it in but there was something a little sloppy and stretched about his approach,” said one long time fan) peppered discussions afterwards.

I hear them. I understand them to a certain extent, whether it was sharing a wish for them to have been closer or recognising that if you didn’t buy into it wholly you would lose the thread (or the will to go on long before the three hour mark) for a show that could not be described as having multiple entry points.

But for those of us who did buy in, who were pulled in and held in the thrall, this was a supremely magical, wholly mesmerising, night of space as the final frontier.

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