Vivid Live, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 2
He smiled. He joked. He ate Tim Tams (or at least confessed to having scoffed the hotel mini bar’s stock). Bill Callahan was dressed down and amused. Jovial and relaxed.
Well, between songs anyway. Elsewhere his surprisingly expressive face and eyes beamed intensity, and sometimes surprise and warning, during those long musical excursions where his baritone told stories pared down to the fewest words available for the most detail possible.
Maybe the lightness of tone was because it was the night before his birthday, though he refuses to celebrate it until the day as that would be indulgent. And Callahan, especially on this tour with only an acoustic guitar and Matt Kinsey on electric, doesn’t do indulgence.
He doesn’t need to though. While Kinsey drew many shades of colour and light from his guitar – sometimes roughened night tones, sometimes washes of early morning, sometimes disturbing splashes of bold intrusion - Callahan mesmerised with that voice.
Its subtle changes of tone and pace, and its ability to convey character and history with little more than a nuanced glance, is a joy to behold and a pleasure to sink into. “I saw a gold ring, at the bottom of the river/Glinting at my foolish heart/Oh my foolish heart had to go diving/Diving diving/Into the murk.”
And that’s true whether in his own songs, such as the pulsating/falling back/pulsating America and the hypnotic Ride My Arrow – songs whose sharpness can startle - or in his cover of Red Steagall’s tragi-country I Gave Up Good Monin’ Darlin’, where he drew out the pathos from a song which could easily have tipped into bathos, or the traditional Walk That Lonesome Valley, where he touched lightly.
Callahan began the night by telling us “I started out in search of ordinary things”, and in essence, yes, that’s what his songs detail. But ordinary things are misnamed all too often – for they matter and mark - and in any case, ordinary things achieve such compelling heights in the best moments of a Bill Callahan song, of which there are many.
He also sang, “in case things go poorly and I not return/Remember the good things I've done.” Songs like these, nights like this, will make that a certainty.