Coming onto Manchester’s Albert Hall stage to the strains of Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’, a song that doesn’t immediately strike you as an obvious touchstone for Bill Callahan’s often gentle brand of americana, instantly feels like the setting of a playful tone; however, perhaps it’s also an ironic statement of what’s to come. For Callahan does jig and caper across the stage throughout this show, bending and kicking out those legs as never before as his supporting musicians, Matt Kinsey (guitar), Jim White (drums), and Dustin Laurenzi (tenor sax), create squalls of jazz-infused sounds around him, sonic storms that gather from delicate melodies, build then break in frenzied crescendos. During one exploratory digression, Callahan sings of being a dove but tonight, with his guitar, he wants to be a hawk; he wants to rock.
Showcasing tracks from his latest album, ‘YTI⅃AƎЯ’, amongst a handful of others from his famed back catalogue, the songs are emboldened, made rawer and wilder in performance here. The band’s atmospheric soundscapes swirl and keen around the anchor of the tunes, sometimes extending them, digging into the groove on songs like ‘Bowevil’, or dissolving into adventurous improvisations, as on ‘Drainface’. Dustin Laurenzi’s sax at times seems to recreate entire weather systems, from breathy rain to cyclonic fury, while the band leader travels across various landscapes, moods, embodying different personae, wide-eyed against dramatic blue and red lighting.
On the more tender offerings, the band continue to provide texture, depth, weight. And, of course, there’s always Bill Callahan’s voice: a miraculous instrument all of itself, honed and weathered through experience, laden with wisdom. The dry, laconic humour that so frequently surfaces in his songs is apparent in a brief address to the audience, acknowledging the cost of living crisis and thanking those present for coming instead of, say, “Feeding the kids.” On a drawn-out ‘Cowboy’, from 2020’s ‘Gold Record’, he extemporises on how he is “a man, not a boy” but later wryly intones he’s “pretty much cow at this point”. Other songs from earlier albums are also gratefully received, as is a brilliant early cover of ‘OD’d in Denver’ by Hank Williams Jr. ‘Rock Bottom Riser’, with its bare, confessional baritone over sparse, mournful guitar lines, draws appreciative looks of shared emotion from those around me, whilst cheers greet ‘Drover’’s opening lines, its subsequent refrain of ‘one thing about this wild, wild country’ in the mouths of many.
Two hours in and, unfortunately, I have to depart to catch a late train, meaning I miss a closing ‘Riding for The Feeling’, apparently dedicated to Low’s Mimi Parker. Still, I’m left contemplating that exhortation from ‘YTI⅃AƎЯ’s ‘Partition’, imploring us all to ‘do what you’ve gotta do / To see the picture’. On nights like these, awareness elevated by the gifts of someone who continues to mine insightful riches, we all come a little closer to experiencing that glimpse.