Willie Reviews Bill Callahan and Bill MacKay @ the Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis

Willie Reviews Bill Callahan and Bill MacKay @ the Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis

 

Bill Callahan’s return to the Cedar on Saturday night brought with it the quiet reflections of his new music and the power of his impressive archive. He’s also the type to consider his response to a question for ten seconds and then say, “Yeah.” Altogether, Bill MacKay and Bill Callahan put on a wonderful evening of music. Here’s how it went down:

One of the more on-brand Bill Callahan moments of his performance Saturday night at the Cedar was the absence of any song introductions except the one pre-baked into “The Ballad of the Hulk,” complete with the same pause for applause heard on the record. To an unacquainted listener, it would sound casual and intimate. But no, when he said “Well after this next song, we’ll be movin’ along,” he recited it word for word and added nothing extraneous. Callahan likes to keep the wall up between him and his listeners, and the persona stayed intact. No friendly dialogue could possibly match the grandeur of his agonizingly-beautiful lyrics, so why try?

Callahan and the band, photo by Adam Bubolz

Callahan was backed up by three excellent musicians—a lead guitarist, a bassist (playing on an electric upright), and a drummer. Unfortunately, I can’t find their names anywhere, though Callahan did reluctantly introduce them after someone in the audience shouted “Who’s in your band?” Playing all together, Callahan willed the songs into tidiness. He moved his body little, but strained and craned his neck and mouth to touch each note with his deep, mellifluous voice. Again, he strove for order and gave his own words their due. His distant gaze out into the audience was occasionally interrupted by a frantic, crazy-eyed look.

The setlist highlighted his most recent record, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, starting and ending with its opening and closing tracks. It’s hard to say how perfect “Shepherd’s Welcome” is for a live show opener. The opening chord entices and intrigues no matter your familiarity with it. He pulled the rope in, silencing an audience that was already spellbound. The hushed song was so delicate that the band was able to continue without applause. I imagine this is Bill Callahan’s dream: an audience showing their delight with stunned silence. He played “747,” another standout from the new record, a loving song if not a love song. During the song’s outro, the lead guitarist placed a toy airplane on his pickup, amplifying the fuzzy sound of a jet engine. “Watch Me Get Married” and “Circles,” two rambling songs in every sense of the word, got tender treatments. The final bookend to close the show was “The Beast,” which devolved into a noisy drone. The band blew the song right open, providing some medium between Callahan’s domestic songs and his noisy impulses.

In between these selections from the new album, Callahan played a number of his older songs. Hearing “America!” around the Fourth of July was a patriotic treat. His internal negotiations between having some national pride and knocking down the military make the song a memorable one. When the song was starting, I heard a guy near me say “This is the new national anthem.” Can it be? Please? The other big showpiece of the evening was “Drover,” from 2011’s Apocalypse. It’s a crystallization of Callahan’s peculiar analytical thinking. He imagines himself driving cattle, and sings of danger, loyalty, wild nature, and something ultra American. The drums mimicked pounding hooves, and the rest of the band did some excellent cattle impressions. The electric guitar lowed, the bass bellowed, and Callahan’s harmonica mooed. “Drover” is a special song and provided the moments of highest intensity during the night. Still, they have perfected that particular imitation so well, that I would love to hear a full album of animal sounds. Think about it, Bill.

 

 

The other Bill on the bill, who was happy to be sharing the bill with Bill, was Bill MacKay. He opened with a number of solo pieces for electric guitar. MacKay is the looser of the two—the complement to Callahan’s steely demeanor. He played from his new album, Fountain Fire, and used a slide on his guitar to sketch out some improvisational takes on pastoral themes. He sings about journeys, seasons, and the journeys of seasons. His take on the traditional is an inviting one that also manages to be weird and new. MacKay also joined in at the end of Callahan’s set, during the noisy finish of “The Beast.”

Bill MacKay, photo by Adam Bubolz

After Callahan played “Drover,” he remarked that he couldn’t have written it if it weren’t for the existence of Doc Watson, who he heard had played at the Cedar in 2005. He felt that Doc Watson’s ghost was still in the building, saying “I feel like this place has a lot of ghosts.” Then, “Maybe I’ll come back here when I’m dead.” There was applause. “Or before I’m dead.” Louder applause. If you can manage it, Bill, please do both.

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