Bill Callahan played his first of two shows at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Monday night for his first indoor show since the start of the pandemic.
Sometimes seeing an artist live can have a really profound impact on you even if you've been a fan for a long time. There can be something inspirational about the way a track comes across when performed in front of you vs hearing it on an album and this was the case for me when Bill Callahan played "Sun Valley Maker" in the round at (Le) Poisson Rouge. I've said that he's my favorite singer/songwriter of the past 25 years on many occasions and so many of his songs hit me deeply, but until now, this had never been one of those songs. However, when he was standing in the middle of the stage and began to strum out the song, something hit me and the song quickly held me tight. I was captivated in the moment and it was one of several times this feeling would arise during the show. Callahan's music has always felt, to me, very personal and intimate. He's a storyteller for the ages and his music is incredibly expressive, vulnerable, and at times striking. His voice is deep and often the centerpiece of his work. In fact, I'm so often drawn into what he's saying that I forget he is often backed a gentle hit of a hi-hat, delicate brushes on a snare, or a lingering bass line that embellish his singular sound and elevate them to new levels. As he took to the stage, I was immediately transfixed as I realized this performances would just feature him alone with just an acoustic guitar and his captivating voice. He opened with a new song and then played a lot from last year's under-appreciated Gold Record and a smattering of other selections from throughout his career. "Let's Move to the Country," another top moment of the night, felt particularly striking and received magnificent applause from the crowd. Played in its more recent incarnation, the track felt especially endearing and even more inspirational given the new state of the world. It's also always a pleasant reminder to me that he's one of the funnier performers I've ever seen and his between song banter is a stunning compliment to the sometimes heavy nature of his lyrics. "This tuner has a bunch of settings" he told the crowd while prepping for one song, "currently it's set to out of tune" he continued as he fiddled around for an almost uncomfortable amount of time before a few more jokes helped to break the ice. While not always autobiographical, his songs resonate with haunting intrigue and at times still feel wildly personal. In his song "The Mackenzies," he sings: "I wished that Jack would call me 'son' again" and when he sang the song tonight, for a brief moment, I felt weightless as my mind transcended my body, overcome with total joy and euphoria as he repeated the simple phrase "It's okay. Son. Son. We're okay. We're okay." as we locked eyes for the final verse. In this moment, it felt like he was singing only to me. When he started "Drover," it was another sensational moment where his striking guitar strums hit with an extra weight in place of the lack of percussion. Still, the track felt as forceful and powerful as ever, his spirit hitting it hard and his determination an absolute triumph. "Red Apples" was another crowd pleasing moment and one for long-time fans who were hoping to hear some material from his days as Smog, but it was his final number that really brought the house down. "I'm hesitant to take requests" he said and immediately fan began to call out their favorites from his remarkable career. Despite some deep love for "Teenage Spaceship" from the crowd, it was the cry for "Let Me See the Colts" that caught his attention and that was what sent us home. As the guitar rang out into the night, it concluded a magnificent evening, one filled with many highlights and one full pure inspiration.