I suppose you could call Bill Callahan a traditionalist: at last night’s Troubadour show, he commanded the stage draped in a seersucker suit, a harmonica around his neck and a nylon-string guitar resting like a baby in his hands. Perhaps he meant homage to Wolfe, Dylan and Segovia. But as he demonstrated over a 90+ minute set, Bill Callahan is very much himself.
Over the years, Callahan has pruned away the wild tangles and unwanted thorns of his music to achieve, over a series of transcendent post-Smog solo records, folk songs at once dryly deliberate and wet with emotion. During songs such as “Riding for the Feeling” and “Jim Cain,” the pragmatism of his granite rhythms dueled against the improvisatory hopefulness of his two-man band, a lead guitarist and drummer who were as much voices in the performance as Callahan’s resolute baritone. On “America!” and elsewhere, they grew briefly louder before turning back, like a summer storm suddenly emptied out.
The band encored with songs from the Smog era, but it was clear from the trio of recent classics he mostly drew upon (A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, this year’s Apocalypse) that he feels he is still — or, I believe, finally — at his most vital. Riding, riding, riding for the feeling.