Bill Callahan performs at Capital Turnaround on Feb. 28, 2023. (Photo by David LaMason)
Bill Callahan’s performance at Capital Turnaround Tuesday evening was a homecoming for the singer-songwriter. The child of language analysts for the National Security Agency, Callahan was born in Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring and later Columbia, as well as spending several years in England. Between songs, Callahan talked about his memories of attending shows in our area, mentioning the old 9:30 Club in particular.
Youthful for his 56 years, it can be hard to believe that Callahan has been making music for more than three decades, beginning with tapes he released under the moniker Smog in the late ’80s. Recorded by Callahan himself on tapes, the early Smog cassettes were decidedly lo-fi. During the ’90s, he increasingly emphasized both lyrics and musical sophistication, moving to the studio and recording with Jim Rourke (best known for his time with Sonic Youth). During the Smog years, Callahan lived a nomadic existence before settling down in Austin in 2004, where he’s lived since, except for a few years in Santa Barbara, California, while his wife, Holly, a filmmaker, was in graduate school.
After more than 15 years of going by Smog, Callahan switched to working under his own name in 2007 with Woke On A Whaleheart, and he’s gone by it ever since. Last year, he released YTILAER (try pronouncing that — it’s “reality” backward!). It’s his third solo LP since he returned from a hiatus in recording in 2019 with Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest. Callahan seems to have come back to music with renewed vigor as these two albums, along with 2020’s cheekily named Gold Record, have earned Callahan some of the strongest reviews of his career.
Stream YTLAER by Bill Callahan on Spotify:
Callahan was backed by a great band. Jim White, a member of instrumental rock group Dirty Three, played drums. Matt Kinsey played guitar, and Dustin Laurenzi played saxophone. Callahan is blessed with a deep, clear baritone voice, and the band let it come to the front, highlighting his lyrics.
The set began with “First Bird,” the lead-off track from YTILAER. Nature imagery appears frequently in Callahan’s songs, like “Bowevil,” another cut from the record, which he played a couple songs later, following “Everyway.” After “Everyway,” Callahan talked about growing up in the area. “Cowboy,” he explained, “is about that time when I loved in Columbia, my high school years. Watching a lot of westerns.”
The next few songs took their titles from animals: “Coyotes” and “Pigeons.” For all the emphasis on his lyrics, there was a lot of musical space in the performance, the songs stretching out, as they did with “A Woman Needs A Woman Or A Man To Be A Man,” “Keep Some Steady Friends Around,” and “Drover.” During one of the songs, Bill went into an improvised bit where he sang about the iPhone on a tripod that was recording him; later, after it was taken down, he joked that he missed it.
The set rounded out with “Partition,” “Teenage Spaceship,” and “35.” Introducing the final song of the main set, his version of the folk-blues standard “In The Pines,” he talked about how Central Texas, where he lives, has very few pines and how, the further east you go, the more pines you find.
When Callahan and has band returned to the stage for their encore to play “Natural Information,” it was already past 11pm. At more than two hours, this show really gave the fans their money’s worth. I had to duck out to catch the last train home.
This was my first time at Capital Turnaround. Formerly a train yard, the building has been restored and update to serve as a concert venue, run by the team who own Jammin’ Java. With so many venues being swallowed up by national chains, it’s a positive development to see locally owned businesses not just thriving, but expanding. The building itself is spacious, as is the theater, which has rows with enough depth to give most people sufficient legroom, always a plus.
Before Callahan and his band took the stage, Pascal Kerong’A, who came to from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the United States to pursue a degree in economics but caught the music bug, opened up with a lively set.
I’ve wanted to see Bill for some time, and he didn’t disappoint in person: great songs, great band, a great show.
Here are some photos of Bill Callahan performing at the Capital Turnaround in DC on Feb. 28, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.