Even Mr. Callahan himself seemed a bit taken aback by the uproarious energy of the crowd assembled at the Great American Music Hall Saturday night. His songs, mostly down-tempo and full of simple guitar figures and elegant, minute drums that ebb and flow like waves, don’t seem like they would inspire shrieks or giddy girls jumping off their feet, but that’s exactly what they did.
“YEAH, BILL!” someone screamed like it was a goddamn rave.
Callahan looked up, startled, his eyebrow arched quizzically. And after a long silence, “Yeah.” It might have been a question, or even an expression of concern.
The evening began with a wonderful performance by the Australian guitarist Mick Turner, who, like Callahan, crafts music that eludes, albeit in starkly different ways. While Turner composes dissonant instrumental pieces that constantly take unexpected turns and twists, Callahan operates in traditional structures whose bizarre lyrics like “I’ve got limitations / like Marvin Gaye / mortal joy is that way,” from “The Sing,” leave you unsure whether you’re being let in on a big joke or witnessing a confession.
During his performance, Callahan stood almost at the back of the stage, scraping the strings of his Stratocaster while his band sat on straight-backed chairs around him, coaxing the songs along with gentle drumming and plodding bass lines.
Callahan’s deadpan baritone is spectacular, rich in tone and full of ambiguous emotion. Its counterpoint is Matt Kinsey’s lead guitar lines; on “America!” he provides Crazy Horse riffs that elevate the song to new heights, and on “One Fine Morning,” he layers swirling clouds of dissonance as Callahan states simply, “My apocalypse.” The effect is cinematic – a man on a mountain with the fires of hell rising to gobble him up.
For a performer whose most extensive on-stage caloric burn came from occasionally marching in place and whose inter-song banter would be right at home in a Hemingway novel, an encore would probably have been a bit excessive. But you had to believe him when he smiled and told the crowd we were the most energetic he had seen on his tour.
As always, giving praise in a quiet way.