I wait in the Nepalese restaurant for Buck, who arrives in a snug grey turteneck top. I tease him for it but only slightly. A Melbourne June is breathing down our necks and it’s the kind of breath that makes you want to keep your neck well-insulated.
We order a few dishes and the “litre of white.” Buck’s curry is salty to the point where I can see it pains him a little, and tomorrow it will cause him a great deal of nausea. For now, he tempers it with rice and scoops it up, and when the wine runs out we walk down to Howler to watch Bill Callahan.
The support act is DAVID QUIRK, who – unusually – is not a musician. When he comes out I think he’s the MC but he keeps talking, and telling jokes, and it’s apparent that Bill’s lone support for this slew of Melbourne shows is a stand-up comic. Which is kind of cool, albeit no doubt heartbreaking for umpteen local alt-folk upstarts. Quirk is not hilarious – no-one’s roaring with laughter, although that kind of momentum is hard to build up during a short set at the best of times. He makes observational gags about Mykis and “dog years” alongside plenty of self-deprecation. In the end he befits his name, and proves suitably disarming – catching us off guard ahead of the often gently confounding headline act.
That act comprises a duo tonight: Bill Callahan in acoustic nylon string guitar mode, joined by Matt Kinsey on electric, who lent his talents to Apocalypse (2011) and Dream River (2013). Kinsey’s style is unique and wonderful: bluesy, feathery, fuzzy, fluid and swooping. His melodies and riffs encircle Callahan’s vocals in charming, unpredictable ways – bringing a compelling dynamic to the proceedings.
We ease in via the drifting ‘Jim Cain,’ and comparatively sprightly ‘Spring,’ with its floating soft-rock riff and lyrics skeptical of romanticisng nature. “Everything is aweing and tired of praise,” Bill ponders; “And mountains don’t need my accolades / and spring looks bad lately anyway […] We call it spring though things are dying / connected to the land like a severed hand.” Fellow Dream River album cut ‘Ride My Arrow,’ comes up the tail, which despite emphasising hand percussion in its recorded form holds up nicely with just two guitars. Among the fairly opaque lyrics about arrows meeting eagles in the sky and eating “pilgrim guts,” there’s a line that neatly foreshadows the rest of the set. “Life ain’t confidential,” Callahan croons. “No, no, no it’s not. It isn’t and it ain’t confidential.”
Because even if Bill’s songs are sometimes thick with bucolic mystique and obfuscated by poesy - they’re just as often very real, emotionally generous. No point pretending we’re not all human. Sad, euphoric, desperate, drunk, meandering, lonely or even just bored. It’s all on the table.
And he doesn’t just say it with his own words; covers are deployed to illuminate pertinent bits of the soul. So tonight we hear Bill’s take on traditional gospel-folk tune ‘You've Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley,’ with its old-time bleakness spun around a homey melody. Packing even more emotional punch is a version of Red Steagall’s ‘I Gave Up Good Mornin' Darlin'’ in which the narrator laments trading the loving greetings of a partner and kids for months of drinking and lumpy mattresses in flophouses. Sinking, as Bill is, into a dense six-show run in frosty Melbourne – a hemisphere away from home – it’s hard not to hear the song as a bittersweet metaphor for the pains of being on tour. Some people might suggest it’s rude to bemoan such a lifestyle in front of a crowd of adoring fans who have each paid almost Seventy brass razoos to see you. But life, as we have discussed, is not confidential (or polite).
Soon Bill gives us the wry, stiltedly rollicking anti-anthem ‘America’; the deceptively sweet-sounding ‘Too Many Birds’; the maundering, beautiful ‘Riding for the Feeling’ and stormy agricultural parable ‘The Drover.’ A highlight for me is the tearjerkingly earnest ode to family and hope, ‘Rock Bottom Riser’ – there’s something especially vulnerable about it, which undercuts the steely tough guy persona that typifies a lot of Callahan’s music. Ending with a denoument and the offer to take requests, we get darkly funny slow burners ‘I’m New Here’ and ‘The Well.’
Bill Callahan has a rare capacity for capturing people’s imaginations, the envy of songwriters everywhere. In turn, he attracts an uncommon kind of devotion. A friend of mine flew over from Perth expressly and is attending three nights in a row. One wonders upon the source of this special magic. Might be his deep, resonant, authoritative yet nonchalant baritone. Maybe his melodies and song structures, which unfurl impressionistically, allowing you to get lost in their wandering forms. Perhaps it is, especially, the lyricism – the way he entwines poetic, pastoral evocations with pithy reflections and dry humour. I think more accurately, it’s a kind of alchemical blend of these things, resulting in a performer who’s both down to earth and a little sublime. Speaking truth, but a bit too good to be true. Seeing him perform in the flesh brings these twinned qualities into stark relief. If you’re even in two minds about whether to catch Bill Callahan live, do it. If you’re not satisfied, I’ll pay for your ticket.
Photo Ⓒ Hanly Banks