Bill Callahan in The Olympia Theatre, Dublin on February 2nd 2013
It’s a beautiful building really, The Olympia, and its setting is one that is often remarked upon by visiting performers. “Does this place mean a lot to you guys?” asks Bill Callahan during tonight’s set, to a murmur in the affirmative from the all-seated venue. The building’s history is queried by the singer, and the lack of crowd knowledge as to the ins and outs of its lifespan leads to the revelation by Callahan that “James Joyce built it.” Tonight is Joyce’s birthday – that much is certainly true – and what better way to celebrate it than in the venue he built, with those distinctive gravelled tones of Callahan rolling over the pews.
Vocal tones of a different hue lead us into tonight’s gig, as Cath and Phil Tyler take us through a vocally-oriented acoustic set. Cath stands, feet planted apart, to open acapella and Phil joins with some gentle folk picking on Fisherman’s Girl. They alternate lead vocals, with Phil laying down his guitar for Queen Sally to let their earthy timbres intertwine. A bit of awkward banter breaks the silence after a time, and the crowd are invited to join in on The Knife’s saucy “Lay a leg over me” refrains. There is a certain rough-around-the-edges charm to their re-imaginings of traditional folk songs, and particularly to Cath’s voice, whether on bawdy balladry or intimate lament. On top of it all, it’s a fine thing to hear not one but two funeral songs of a Sunday, with their take on The Unquiet Grave linking nicely to Smog’s Dress Sexy At My Funeral early in the headliner’s set.
Callahan stands at the rear of a four-piece arrangement, his colleagues seated on either side of him, to begin a set heavy with material from last year’s ‘Dream River’ album. The night’s first real cheer of recognition comes for the double-hitter of Jim Cain and the aforementioned Smog track, with its keening lead guitar lines. With an economical but effective percussion set-up and the accompaniment of bass and electric guitar, the songs here take on a whole new texture as the quartet breathe an expansive air into the new material in a live setting.
Callahan’s rich, unique vocal will always be the sonic that stands apart from everything else that’s going on, but tonight it’s the lead guitar from his seated bandmate, flowing and whining through each number, that knits this set together. Drover sporadically segues into segmented squalls of feedback before reverting to form, and One Fine Morning similarly sees Callahan indulge in experimental free-form guitar interludes, breaking into the song’s structure. America! too extends its reach, completing the lengthy mid-set ‘Apocalypse’ trilogy as Callahan takes a seat with the rest of the band to drive it onward.
“Do you feel comfortable in a classy joint like this?” asks Callahan, coming out for an encore after a chorus of stamping feet, then gently beginning Rock Bottom Riser. The floor is opened up to audience requests for the night’s final song, and a torrent of varying suggestions are thrown towards the stage; Too Many Birds rounds things off, one final flight in a spellbinding night that fluidly moved from one perfect, understated moment to the next.