Gig review: Bill Callahan at Leeds Irish Centre

Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
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To paraphrase Spinal Tap, Bill Callahan’s appeal seems to have become less selective of late.

When the Austin-based songwriter last visited Leeds, he played the Faversham. Eight years later, the 47-year old fills the considerably roomier Irish Centre (according to the droll Callahan, the band had visited the Leeds Centre whilst gigging in Dublin a few nights ago). What’s more, the audience seems positively hypnotised by Callahan’s contemplative, inner space-surfing, simultaneously wisecracking and oh so sad songcraft: with the crowd hanging on to Callahan’s every word, there’s barely a picture-snapping smartphone in sight.
It’s perhaps no surprise. With last year’s ‘Dream River’ widely – and deservedly – praised as a career high, Callahan’s in the enviable position where, after almost quarter of a century of music-making, an evening emphasising recent material qualifies as a greatest hits set.

Although favourites from the days when Callahan still traded as Smog get an enthusiastic reception, the recent material – the steadily escalating throb of ‘Spring’, the gentle funk of ‘Javelin Unlanding’ and especially a tender yet robust rendition of ‘Riding for the Feeling’ off 2011’s ‘Apocalypse’ – hits that extra bit harder. Whereas music has at various points in the past seemed almost an afterthought to Callahan’s idiosyncratic lyrics and Leonard Cohen-esque rumble, the three-piece touring band infuse tonight’s proceedings with a vibrant pulse familiar from the richly textured yet still sparse ‘Dream River’; the tireless but never overegged guitar wig-outs in particular guarantee that the album’s prominent jazz flute and other exotic accompaniments aren’t missed that much.
The spell is broken by a peculiar, grotesquely drawn-out jam that a cover of soul classic ‘Please Send Me Somebody to Love’ succumbs to; simultaneously sprawling yet tight mere minutes ago, the band are suddenly so clumsy and graceless that it’s hard not to read the mess as a test of the audience’s seemingly inexhaustible reverence: will we applaud anything?

Although there are a further treats in store – particularly a hazy but muscular glide through ‘Ride My Arrow’ – the set never fully recovers from this marathon-length stumble. It’s probably unwise to be ungrateful when faced with generosity, but maybe a two-hour serving of Callahan’s slow-burning wares is simply too large a portion to be ingested in one sitting.

Gig date: February 5

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