(Above: Smog’s Bill Callahan. Photo by Claire Whitehead.)
Listening to his records, you might not think Bill Callahan, the man behind Smog, is very relatable to Dave Matthews, but it’s true. Callahan’s rich baritone is often paired with equally somber accompaniment, and the result is most often the antithesis to Matthews’ spirited tunes. But in a live setting, Callahan oddly resembles the multi-platinum-selling artist. He sings the high notes out of the corner of his mouth and kind of shrugs his shoulders as his guitar rests high on his chest.
Of course, everything beyond basic superficialities separates Callahan from Matthews, right down to the subdued nature of the Smog leader’s stage presence. You wouldn’t be alone in thinking Callahan isn’t having a good time while he performs to a club filled with adoring fans, as he certainly doesn’t emit much emotion.
To be fair though, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, Smog’s latest, is the kind of record that’s difficult to animate in a live setting. The exception being “The Well,” a stirring song of personal discovery during a stroll through the woods. But, sadly, despite playing much of the new album, Callahan left this song off the set list.
During the night, the singer/songwriter often stepped back to noodle on his classical guitar (especially during an overlong, meandering version of “Let’s Move to the Country”). Each time, the crimson light of The Earl revealed slight bags beneath Callahan’s eyes that disavowed knowledge of anything more than mere contentment.
It was disappointing that a man with such a dulcet speaking voice and obvious gift for humor said next to nothing between songs. Aside from the occasional “thank you” or instructions to the soundman, Callahan said nary a word the entire evening. Maybe that’s just not his bag, but a wry bit of his signature dry wit (as was evidenced during an excellent rendition of the sardonic “Dress Sexy at My Funeral”) or some sort of between-song banter would’ve been well received.
Although the show did drag at moments, several of Callahan’s retooled songs surpassed their recorded counterparts. By night’s end—and after returning for the encore—Callahan turned in a rocking version of “Cold Blooded Old Times.” One of the catchiest tracks in Smog’s catalog (and perhaps best known for its subtle brilliance in the movie High Fidelity), the song served as the perfect ending for the night, uniting all, fists pumping and heads nodding.