I speed. I park just before 9 p.m., and I arrive at Local 506 just after. Plenty of driving. I’m tired. I just want to see Bill Callahan. I adore this man, his music, and basically all that he is. Easily, I find him about as cool as I have yet been able to deem anyone. I present my membership card and I.D., and I explain that I am there to represent WKNC. ”I’m on the list” – only they don’t have my name. They don’t have any of the names that WKNC sent in. Phone-in winners? DJ pass? Nope. I’m starting to feel this experience slipping away from me, but I contact our promotions director, have emails forwarded, admire the convenience of the technology in my hand, and all is settled. So that’s sort of my spiel on life before my first Bill Callahan show. I include it only because I think it contributed to my experience – to the choice of words that I’m about to let flow. Now, my spiel on music.
I’m in. I’m super appreciative to be there, but a little later than I prefer to be. Maybe a little bummed that my position isn’t the one I usually try to earn with early attendance. As I walk in past the bar, though, and hear Ed Askew… and see him… I become instantly invested. He gently sings, almost speaks, his lyrics. Otherwise, all he plays is the harmonica. After the first song, he discusses some experimentation he’d done with “seventh chords” (and I scoot to the front into quite a spacious spot three feet from the stage). Ed asks the keyboardist (his only accompaniment on stage) to play a C major and then play it again adding the “seventh chord.” The man on keys has no idea.
That holds as symbolic of my experience with Ed Askew. He is an artist; He went to Yale in the ’60s; He is a distinguished liver. Both the words of his songs and the words in between them came from experience, as he made clear (“So yeah, this song is a true story.”). One song would almost sound like “Claire de Lune,” but it would spin off with a playful riff. One song, my favorite from him, was inspired by Gertrude Stein’s poem “Sacred Emily” (“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”). The latter was the only song that featured anything but a keyboard or harmonica – Ed’s voice was accompanied by the softness of a ukulele.
The keyboard sounded a little too electronic for me, though it may have been attempting to convey Ed’s original editions which featured a harpsichord. When he finishes: applause, real applause/appreciation, and he responds to that applause/appreciation with an encore – one song. It’s a real encore – not planned or schemed into the performance like encores tend to be nowadays. Overall, Ed Askew had character. He had the sort of quarks that make people characters, but he also had the qualities that are included in the common concept of “good” character. He was a character with character: equal to my expectation of someone worthy to be associated with Bill Callahan. He left a light and happy mood in the room. Children could co-exist, and they were actually children – not the immature-in-all-ages I’ve been seeing at good shows lately. Beards were being complimented. It was nice.
The playlist in between performances was good. Bravo to you, Local 506.
Now. Bill Callahan. I will not explain him as much because, to me, there wasn’t a new understanding that was formed. My experience amidst Bill Callahan was more of an appreciation/realization of an already possessed understanding. Bill is cool. I cannot help but admire him, his music, and basically all that he is. His music is orchestrated. What the impatient and noise-needy ignore is that his music is orchestrated. To some it seems simple, but that “simplicity” is, to me, a calm complexity. He, with only a classical guitar and a few harmonicas, produces beauty. His fingers are active and so intentional. His voice… steady; and so much more, but you decide those adjectives for yourself. Live, his music is clean and expressive. His performance brings to life what may seem flat or even silly in an album (“America!” – that song was brilliant live).
Matt Kinsey sat in with his SG and supplied the bright guitar riffs that could swim with the whammy, stretched strings, and maybe a pedaled effect; or, he could just pick along with Bill. He was splendid. Sometimes his role was simple, but sometimes… sometimes he operated – exacting between strings and levels.
Neal Morgan on the drums was perfectly additive. He was not only rhythm, and he didn’t consistently call attention, but if you watched him, if you appreciated the little things he was doing, it was truly a delight. He blew up at one point. It wasn’t exactly a solo, but he went for it and made it. Masterfully, simply, he rocked.
They opened with “Riding for the Feeling” (top song of the year?), played much of the new album (Apocalypse), and some old ‘n goodies (…Smog..!). It was all welcome. Some songs called exact attention to the lyrics. Some songs guided my thoughts to important things. They played like ten songs in almost two hours. A solid minute or more of genuine applause brought them out for a one song encore. They played “The Well.” I loved it all.
Afterthought: it was a little warm.