Bill Callahan often prefers seated theatres to clubs as the better environment for his music as it moves, album by album, away from the taut, tension laid songs of his previous alter-ego Smog. So Neukölln’s Heimathafen theatre / ballroom space – tonight, standing only – is the perfect environment for a Saturday night show by this revered writer-musician. Every show at HH seems to have its own special atmosphere and while any show there lacks the grit of a Festsaal event, its becoming one of Berlin’s favourite venues.
The softly spoken Alasdair Roberts opens the show, his lilting Scottish singing voice matched by his speaking voice, in which he introduces the songs and talks to the audience in German (he was born and raised here), something that is well received. Roberts is another artist who demands your full attention and he also deserves a certain setting for the contemplation of the beauty and purity of his personal vision of traditional folk music. Architecturally, Heimathafen works for him, and the response is generous, but the loud murmer of conversation during his set is less that ideal for listening to the sparse detail of his songs. While exposure to his special craft of song writing and reinterpretation will hopefully win him a new audience tonight, ultimately, much of his set is lost in the room.
Much of what swamps Roberts’ set is the anticipation for Callahan himself. Having not performed here since 2011, he divides the set mostly between his most recent album – ‘Dream River’ – and its predecessor ‘Apocalypse’. Callahan is a prolific artist and not prone to crowd pleasing – Dress Sexy at My Funeral, from Smog’s ‘Dong’s of Sevotion’ album gets cheer, but ultimately the rather meandering version performed doesn’t satisfy, the desire to rearrange the song to fit Callahan’s now more open way of expression not fitting the song’s simple, Velvets / Jonathan Richman inspired rhythmic form. The intensity is kept for those more recent songs – where Callahan has moved away from the often twisted vignettes and stories of Smog to the more introspective and universal emotions expressed by the material that bears his own name.
His deep, half spoken vocals hold a deceptive amount of feeling as much as they do his observations on the human condition, and he almost walks on the spot when he hits his stride, looming over his seated backing band. Matt Kinsey’s guitar playing alternates from sounds effects of distortion to inspired lead playing, the latter style of which features heavily on the more recent of the two albums. Looking at other reviews from this tour, clearly it's America, from ‘Apocalypse’ that is the most immediate and effective song of the set. A halting, haunting rhythm piece that takes off in varying directions, the centre piece of which sees Callahan ruminate on his own journey as a musician – one never having to serve for his country like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson – and America’s allowance of the reinvention of the individual. Riding from The Feeling and One Fine Morning from the same album are given space to breathe. Similarly, songs from ‘Dream River’ are presented with less instrumentation than found on the album, but this creates a focus for the band to explore the musical spaces between Callahan’s words and add to the sense of longing, regret, and coming to terms with ones emotions that the words so succinctly relate.
The sound at HH is never as loud as other venues, but tonight it was at least perfect in its quality – warm bass tones, the drums percussive and light and the guitars sharp and distinct. An epic concert, at once uplifting and draining, Callahan and band creating an emotional space unlike any other contemporary artist exploring American life and emotions. He name checks (and covers) Martin Gaye, and Leonard Cohen comes to mind, but there’s not another individual like Callahan in modern music – and the attention he was given and the response he received reinforces that status.