Saturday, May 07, 2011
BILL CALLAHAN @ CENTRAL METHODIST HALL 6 May 2011
After a warm, sunny afternoon, a torrential downpour from ominous thick, black clouds hit Manchester about 7.30pm. Precisely the time a long line was waiting patiently outside Central Methodist Hall for doors to open for Bill Callahan. Doors did not open until 25 minutes after that advertised time when a damp and bedraggled line had to file slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, through the narrow entrance and the diligent security bag-checks. Once inside the building, it was up two flights and stairs and into the auditorium to find only a handful of people watching support Sophia Knapp who had already started playing on time.
I’m telling you all this because it may in part explain my poor mood and why I took against the venue. Central Hall is a large rectangular wooden-panelled box with a separate seated balcony set back behind the level standing area. Standing in front of the raised stage for Sophia Knapp the first thing that struck me was how poor the sound was. Moving back to the middle of the standing area away from the stage monitors was an improvement but not a great one. Things weren’t looking good. Plus the venue was dry – not a single alcoholic drink to be had (later someone said to me: “of course, it’s the METHODIST Hall” but I do not know enough about the peculiar sub-divisions of Christianity to know their individual stance on alcohol PLUS at Sacred Trinity or St Philip’s Churches you can get a pint of cask ale often hand-pulled by the vicar himself. Go figure).
Bill Callahan can be a contrary performer – I’ve experienced great – and not so great – performances. Tonight he was performing as part of a trio: drummer, often using brushes, side-stage, a guitarist, seated, in the centre and both musicians watching and taking cues from the standing Bill Callahan with acoustic guitar. It almost had the feel of a jazz trio and there was a looseness to their playing, particularly the drumming, but they kept relatively close to the tight repetitive patterns of the songs. However straightaway the limitations of the building’s acoustics became apparent: the big, booming sound lost any of the delicacy and subtlety of the songs from the recent record ‘Apocalypse’ and its immediate predecessors (the whole of the main set was from the last four albums starting with 2005’s “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love”. Hardly the advertised ‘career-spanning’ set given the first Smog record came out at the beginning of the nineties).
The songs that seemed to fare better were either the stripped back (‘Free’s’ with its off-mic whistling and drumming so quiet it was almost inaudible) or the more energetic (the loud, intense final section of ‘Say Valley Maker’). By the second half of the set my ears and expectations had adjusted to the sound and I was drawn in by the band’s playing. And it was a good performance from Callahan. He was unmoving and implacable with only the occasional ‘thank you’ – but the odd little jig or sway crept in during songs and then he even cracked a couple of jokes about the low light-levels. His deep, hypnotic voice was the element that managed to rise above the acoustics most successfully and his songs are spell-bindingly mysterious and beautiful. So definitely a gig I was glad I was at – and we did get ‘The Well’ AND ‘Let Me See The Colts’ - but when I compare it to his show at the Deaf Institute in 2009 it was sadly lacking, not because of the band but the venue. Central Methodist Hall has little to recommend it as a gig venue other than some good sightlines; I won’t be hurrying back.
The Set List:
Riding For The Feeling
The Wind and The Dove
Too Many Birds
Eid Ma Clack Shaw
Say Valley Maker
Let Me See The Colts
Posted by The Archivist at 9:50 a.m.