Bill Callahan, with Cath and Phil Tyler and Deep Dark Woods - O2 ABC, Glasgow, Sat 1 Feb 2014
A trio of strong performances make this one of the finest gigs at Celtic Connections 2014
One of the most eagerly anticipated line-ups of this year's Celtic Connections festival didn’t fail to disappoint a sold-out crowd at Glasgow’s ABC. The venue is said to house Europe’s largest mirrorball. If you crane your head heaven-ward to the vaulted roof of this former cinema, the gigantic, pendulous monument to frivolity seems conspicuously out of place suspended over three of the festivals more spartan acts.
Canadian quintet The Deep Dark Woods kick things off with their brand of dilated country rock. Singer Ryan Boldt has a magnetic intensity as he purrs ‘The Place I Left Behind’ from beneath a bassball cap. The DNA strains of various folk tunes writhe beneath the surface of the hard luck narratives, with bass player Chris Mason adding harmonies to raucous choruses, buttressed by Geoff Hilhorst’s Richard Manuel-esque keyboard swells. Guitarist Clayton Linticum adds catherine wheel sparks to the wistful ‘Two Time Loser’ above Lucas Goetz’ stoned drumming.
Husband and wife duo Cath and Phil Tyler are among the UK’s finest proponents of Sacred Harp singing – a vocal tradition based upon a system of ascribing shapes to notes in the scale to help indicate pitch in a less prescriptive way than more conventional western notation. Their angular harmonies work in tiered counterpoint as they play 'all the hits from 1848'. Phil Tyler thrums an acoustic guitar in an open tuning, adding a medieval drone to ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’, with the couple singing, ‘I want to wear the crown of glory’ in the kind of close harmony that's only achievable through habitual proximity. Their reading of ‘Courting is a Pleasure’ is a suitably sombre aperitif for the headline act.
As soon as Bill Callahan's unmistakable oak-strength vocal issues the opening line of the opening song on his new album, Dream River, the mirrorball seems to stop on its axis. ‘The Sing’ is an accumulation of mundane details that describe the unique isolation felt in the life of a touring musician. As the events gather the singer extracts a cryptic wisdom from the monotonous indignity of his situation: ‘The only words I said today were "beer" and "thank you" / Giving praise in a quiet way, like a church that’s far away'.
A tremor of applause breaks out as the band break into ‘Jim Cain’ from 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. This slow burner allows drummer Adam Jones to flex some moves on various percussion instruments while Matt Kinsey emits guitar swells from his Gibson SG. The tremor of applause grows to an eruption as the band play 'Dress Sexy At My Funeral'. By turns sentimental and lurid, this is an archetypal Callahan ditty. The song unspools from an unremarkable two-chord introduction to reveal an open love letter detailing specific situations to an unspecified lover, which climaxes in the line, ‘Tell them about the time on the beach we did it with fireworks above us’, before uttering a coital grunt beneath Kinsey’s pyrotechnic guitar.
On ‘America’, Callahan plays a single chord riff with a monomaniacal insistence that brings to mind Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In the USA’. This morphs into a mutant disco beat with the singer invoking the spectres of George Jones, Mickey Newbury and Kris Kristofferson as guitar-toting foot soldiers in ‘this grand and golden land’. Set highlight, ‘One Fine Morning’, sifts through the poetic debris of end times with Callahan commanding the ‘mountains bow down’ against vertiginous sweeps of e-bowed guitar. This prolonged, monochordal hallucination seems to reactivate the rotation of the monstrous mirror ball, as a dozen spotlights are trained on the singer, transforming him into a column of light.