BILL CALLAHAN Concert Review (SLO Guild Hall)

“The Desolation of Smog”
written by Jason Reed
February 27, 2017

A rescheduled “donation only” concert. A church of poetry. A Foods Not Bombs feast. Interpretive dancing from a woman named Pickles adorned with a dry cleaner’s cellophane wrapper.  All of these things strangely coalesced tonight like threads in a post-Oscars red carpet being figuratively unfurled for guest of honor Bill Callahan (of Smog).

It was a surreal evening that could just as easily not happened. The day of the originally scheduled event a week prior, torrential downpour, floods and landslides caused a large section of Highway 101 in California to be shut down. It appeared that Mother Nature was not initially consenting to Bill’s participation and, like a confused Warren Beatty the night prior, had mistakingly announced that the cast of La La Land would be attending instead. Luckily, through the perseverance of event organizer Poetry Church and the graciousness of Mr. Callahan (as well as Mother Nature finally opening the right envelope) loyal fans were presented with a valuable award in honor of their faith and patience. There was no gold statuette to hand out but Bill Callahan balanced out the economy of expectations with a gold standard more valuable than anything touched by Midas.


Bill Callahan performed with the characteristic beauty and stark minimalism that he is renowned for, singing with a  voice that often conveys sadness and resignation. When fans and music critics place Bill in the pantheon of other legendary American singer/songwriters they do so for a reason. The guy is one of the closest things we have to a Johnny Cash of our era, a troubadour who follows that lonesome highway, a hobo of the 21st Century. Like fellow Drag City label mate Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham), Callahan’s deep , but at times unsteady,  voice conveys a sensitive masculinity of a humbled wanderer, mixed with the unease of the uncertainty of modernity. He’s a melancholic Johnny Appleseed propagating feelings across the barren landscape of middle America, with no assurance they’ll be watered or come to fruition. It’s proven to be a successful investment strategy, however, since those who have been touched by his music often profess its redemptive qualities to the uninitiated, becoming converts spreading the news of this American prophet.

Highlights of the evening included Bill’s impassioned rendition of the Carter Family classic “Walk That Lonesome Valley” as well as his evocative performance of his song “Drover”, at times channeling what sounded like vocal intonations of an Americana Nick Cave. The full set list was as follows:

  1. Jim Cain
  2. Spring
  3. Small Plane
  4. America!
  5. Walk That Lonesome Valley (Carter Family cover)
  6. Ride My Arrow
  7. Drover
  8. Riding For The Feeling
  9. Say Valley Maker
  10. In The Pines

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