At 50 years of age, singer-songwriter and international icon Bill Callahan shows no signs of slowing down.
He just wrapped up performing six shows over three consecutive nights at Howler in Brunswick. The intimate performance atmosphere stands in contrast to Callahan’s previous Australian tour, where he played as part of VIVID Live and performed a sold out show at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall in 2015.
We caught the third of his six intimate Howler performances on Tuesday the 30th of May.
As he graces the stage, Callahan – deftly holding a nylon string acoustic guitar – dons an unassuming green business shirt tucked into straight cut blue jeans with grey loafers. His salt and pepper, greying hair shimmers in the downward light. He wears a forlorn expression, punctuated with a worldly experience that shines through his weathered features. His gracious and enigmatic baritone fills the room, with a delicate yet forceful tone.
There is little dialogue between the songs, but Callahan does recount a story of when he visited Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges – “is it still there?” He appears somewhat beaten and forlorn, but with a certain sense of rugged optimism. His accompanying guitarist (and sole band member for these performances) Matt Kinsey adds layers of distorted ambience, providing additional colour and texture to Callahan’s strummed guitar which serves to be explosive, while subdued. Callahan’s face twists and scrunches as he lays himself bear with his flawless vocal delivery, and moving lyricism – he is an evocative and heart wrenching statue bathed in orange and purple light, swimming through the souls of a transfixed audience.
A natural story teller, Callahan’s tales – cautionary or otherwise – seem to resonate deeply with all those in attendance. The audience’s body language is reminiscent of cult members hanging on the words of their charismatic leader – they drink him in with a patient enthusiasm. Though barley a smile breaks out in the room, the joy is rather apparent. Many listen with their eyes closed, in a dream like state. An overwhelmed woman in the front row silently wipes tears from her eyes with the fabric of their sleeve. An aged, greying man in a cap allows his tears to fall openly down his cheek. The silence between each chord strummed is thick – there is little noise in the utterly packed room, other than the slow rotation of the five ceiling fans whilst Callahan’s eyes scan the audience with a calm intensity. As he performs his most adored cuts like ‘Riding For The Feeling’ and ‘America,‘ he holds his attendees in the palm of his hand – they are transfixed, and transported by him.
When he performs the iconic ‘Drover,’ his addition of a harmonica takes on an apocalyptic quality as it creates a texturally dense undercurrent paired with the heavily effected backing guitar. The two musicians armed only with their guitars manage to create an immersive and thick soundscape which absorbs and penetrates the room.
“You’ve been a pure delight to play for,” he says towards the end of his set, to laughter. “No I’m serious.” He replies, stone faced. “What, you don’t feel like a pure delight? Nobody feels like a pure delight. But most of us are. Anyway, last song,” he concludes, to a chorus of sad “awwws.”
In line with his bare bones, no frills performance, Callahan did not indulge in an encore. His audience did not seem to mind.