Bill Callahan transcends the alt.country label...

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Smog : Brighton Pavilion Theatre

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Smog : Brighton Pavilion Theatre

Bill Callahan is like an aircraft – he’s pretty heavy, and he carries

a lot of baggage. As one of the originators of what was once quaintly called ‘lo-fi’, he’s seen both fashion and fidelity change in the world of the singer-songwriter, and has emerged, probably as much to his surprise as anyone else’s, at the head of a slow, sad pack.

It’s an enviable position to be in. While alt.country (usually the one-horse town a man with a guitar and a song ends up in) produces increasingly formulaic performers, Callahan is possessed of a unique talent. The delicacy of his emotions remain on the inside – his musical exterior is tough as steel. Accompanied by a violinist, a guitar player, and a drummer who seems to have stepped off the set of The Sopranos, he appears at first invincible. His voice, a much-impersonated baritone, is tough. His music, pruned and developed with Chicago luminaries like Jim O’Rourke and John McEntire, is tougher still. With ‘Let’s Move To The Country’, he’s a rural Lou Reed, with ‘Held’ and ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’, an avant-garde Rolling Stones.

Only his face gives it away. When he sings, Bill Callahan winces – either at his own attempts to sing, or at some of his more difficult and telegrammatic words – and you begin to realise how little at ease he is here. Some people just perform their songs, but Smog look like they stand on trial by theirs. We’re lucky they mount such an eloquent defence.

John Robinson