With the release of his album YTILAER in fall 2022, Bill Callahan shared during an interview with Paste the instigation behind writing the batch of songs featured on the record:
“I started becoming more interested in rock music again, so I started thinking more in terms of a band type of record….It seemed like, after the pandemic, I needed all the help I could get to make a little noise.”
Callahan arrived at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC on Sunday, February 26, 2023 with the same intention: to make a little noise. For the sold out concert, Callahan was accompanied by a team of musicians who are comfortable making music with him, including Dustin Laurenzi on saxophone; electric guitar by Matt Kinsey, and the incomparable Jim White on drums and percussion. These musicians provided both a sympathetic and insistent accompaniment to the centerpiece of the night: Callahan’s songs.
Drawing mainly from YTILAER as well as its predecessor Gold Record, Callahan re-arranged many of the songs during the concert to feature extended musical passages as a way to emphasize the band aspect of the presentation. Callahan and company kicked off the concert with “First Bird,” the same song that opens YTILAER. The assembled musicians created psychedelic music to match the lyrics, telling of half-awake, half asleep sensations that usually happen first thing in the morning: “And we’re coming out of dreams / As we’re coming back to dreams.”
Callahan sported a black jacket with rhinestones. The careful way in which he moved about the stage and talked to the audience recalled another Texan singer-songwriter, Townes Van Zandt. For the second song of the evening “Everyday,” Callahan employed the same startling yet strangely funny imagery as some of Van Zandt’s best songs:
We warmed our hands in the corpse of a wild horse
On the shores of Assateague
And then blood on our hands up to our elbows
At least we’re all in this horse together.
Lines like these prompted a few laughs from the crowd. Meanwhile, the band summoned comparisons to a spectrum of other bands throughout the night, sounding like Morphine during parts of “Bowevil” and then the carefree, jammy sounds of The Allman Brothers Band for “Natural Information” as the sax and electric guitar played extended harmony lines together. Callahan’s 2020 song “Cowboy” was transformed from a country/western standard sound to a lounge-y jazz torch song, further demonstrating the range of styles that the band is comfortably able to produce.
The next block of songs — “Coyotes,” “Partition,” and “Planets” — had more extended musical passages that particularly highlighted Jim White’s work on the drums. There was no John Bonham-esque longform drum solo as in The Song Remains the Same, but he commanded the rhythm of the ensemble during these songs, guiding the musicians through thunder and lightning shadings, noise/space sonic explorations, and even slow blues.
At one point during the performance, Callahan bantered with the crowd about the hotel that is being built immediately behind the concert venue. He wryly commented on the trees that were cut down to allow this to happen, including perhaps some sycamore trees. Members of the crowd whooped and cheered in anticipation that Callahan would start playing his much-loved song “Sycamore” from the 2007 album Woke On A Whaleheart. Callahan immediately recognized his comment as false tease and murmured that his word choice had been a mistake.
The last section of the performance included a radically reworked Smog classic “Permanent Smile” powered by an inside-out saxophone riff courtesy of Laurenzi, Callahan’s the-dark-part-of-the-woods vocals and bluesy electric guitar work on the traditional “In the Pines,” and the warmly-received Callahan classic “Too Many Birds” as the night’s encore. As a whole, the concert highlighted all unique strengths of this group and allowed Callahan to lead them through challenging new arrangements that highlighted the light and dark of his lyrical content. Callahan and friends certainly lived up to his promise to “make a little noise.”
The next day, Callahan did a book signing at Bagatelle Books in Asheville. Attendees arrived to find an electric guitar and amplifier set up with Callahan wearing shades, the corrective lens type of shades, not the rock ‘n roll lifestyle kind. He read from his 2010 epistolary novel titled Letters to Emma Bowlcut, joking that this was the longest delay between a book release and an author reading. While reciting five of the letters from the book, Callahan played music along the way as accompaniment to the words, providing an overall sonic atmosphere or mimicking the sound of footsteps going down a hallway.
A Q&A segment followed the warmly received performance with Callahan fielding questions on topics such as creativity, the meaning of lyrics to one of his songs, lucid dreaming, and much more. He was thoughtful, engaged, and funny in answering these questions, often asking questions himself to better understand the original query. Though he has always been deliberate in his interactions with his fans and the general public, Callahan’s generosity of spirit was on display throughout the book signing event. This served as an extension to Callahan’s performance at The Grey Eagle the night before as the re-arrangements of his songs allowed each musician in the band to shine while at the same time also offering the music as a gift to his audience.
Bill Callahan Setlist, The Grey Eagle, February 26, 2023
- First Bird
- Natural Information
- Keep Some Steady Friends Around (Smog cover)
- Naked Souls
- Permanent Smile (Smog cover)
- In the Pines (traditional)
- Too Many Birds (encore)
Featured image by Rielly Jackson. All other photos in the post by Scott Bunn.