Live: Bill Callahan Brings The Countryside To Lincoln Center


Bill Callahan
American Songbook @ Lincoln Center
Wednesday, February 8

Better than: Trying to catch a cab outside of Lincoln Center.

First, a confession: I had never been to Lincoln Center in my four and a half years living in New York City. I was not prepared for seeing this show with a backdrop of Central Park, Columbus Circle, and a good chunk of the New York skyline. I was more wide-eyed than ever before, proving my still-developing New Yorker-ness. In a way, I was like Bill Callahan himself, wondering (him aloud, me inwardly) what we were doing here on a Wednesday night, playing/listening to country songs while staring out into the metropolis’s night sky.

Callahan started out on a very strong note, coming out to the best song from last year’s majestic Apocalypse: “Riding for the Feeling” is a slow roast, a warm cup of your favorite coffee, enjoyed next to the fire as snow batters your window. His voice was somehow more present and alive than on record, its imperfections strengthening the song’s impact. The acoustics in the Allen Room really amplified every note from the dual guitars and the soft drumbeats. It sure helped that every person seemed to be holding their breath; at one point, I swear I heard a piece of paper rustle across the 400-something-capacity room.

After the strong intro, the trio played through tracks from Apocalypse as well as older tracks from the Smog days here. Midway through the set, the rousing and almost-funky “America!” got the crowd to come alive and do some unfortunately loud hootin’ and hollerin’ and foot stomping. This segued smoothly into “Our Anniversary,” from Smog’s Supper, a much quieter tune but one that seemed to stir something in the crowd’s longtime Callahanites. The man behind me was whispering the lyrics to himself a second before they were sung, and somehow this was not obnoxious.

The strongest stretch in the set was, no doubt, the three-song sequence of “Drover”, “I’m New Here”, and “The Well”. From the moment that Callahan a cappella’d the beginning lines of “Drover” (“The real people… went away”), there was a sense of transfixed wonder filling the room, as if we wanted every song to reach peaks previously unheard of. The band obliged, especially the backing drums (from the slightly unhinged hands of Neal Morgan) that came alive and boomed at the slightest provocation. “I’m New Here” is quite possibly the most gorgeous song in the extensive Callahan catalog, and it’s easy to see why even Gil Scott-Heron was so blown away by it that he covered it for his last album. You could probably count on one hand the amount of lyrics in contemporary music more inspiring and life-affirming than “no matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ you can always turn around”. Finally, “The Well,” the second-best song from the best Smog album (A River Ain’t Too Much to Love), stretched its already substantial runtime with some tricky guitar work from Matt Kinsey and some heavy emphasis on the crowd-pleasing lyric of “fuck all y’all.”

So what’s the best song from the best Smog album, you ask? That would be last night’s pre-encore, “Let Me See the Colts.” A gorgeous, meandering track, it was the beautiful finale to what was presumably the last show from the Apocalypse album cycle (according to Callahan’s note in the not-normal-at-a-music-show Playbill). It’s a counterpoint to “Riding for the Feeling”, really: they’re both weary songs, ready for whatever comes their way. Callahan even threw a bit of improvisation at the end, with a direct message to the crowd: “Thank you everybody/ it’s the end of the show/ time to go home.” It wasn’t, however, the end of the show. After a long and boisterous standing ovation, the trio made their way out for one more song: the traditional “In The Pines.” It came as the cars on 59th Street somehow disappeared, making the music’s backdrop eerily silent and empty. We were on the range, near the forests of the midwest, even if just for a few moments.

Critical bias: My vanity Facebook/MOO business cards have a lyric from “Riding on the Feeling” on the back.

Overheard: “The drummer made me feel like he was in the jungle!”—excited woman on the way out of the venue.

Random notebook dump: I feel like everyone wanted to punch the dudes who kept “woo-hoo”ing after every song started.

Set list:
Riding for the Feeling
Baby’s Breath
Eid Ma Clack Shaw
Too Many Birds
One Fine Morning
Our Anniversary
Universal Applicant
I’m New Here
The Well
Say Valley Maker
Let Me See The Colts

In The Pines