When Bill Callahan played Austin in September, he didn’t opt for the usual club space, or even a church or a small theater. He played an intimate show out on a boat, performing songs from his new record, “Dream River,” against the none-more-appropriate backdrop of the Colorado River.
It was the perfect date night for couples who met at the old Emo’s in the ’90s, an excuse to wear a button-up shirt to cover all that ink. Soft rock cuts from Michael McDonald, Colin Blunstone and Toto – Callahan’s request – played before and after his set, signifying that this was a mature event. Callahan’s music deserves the sort of undivided attention you can’t get a rock club.
“It’s hard to break out of the mold, everything’s all set up to be this certain way,” he said later. About doing non-traditional shows, he said it’s something he’s “become more interested in, especially for something like an album release. It should feel like something special.”
It was a special evening, even when the boat passed a group of singing kayakers. Callahan took it in stride, joking that they had “upstaged” him.
“Dream River,” released through his longtime label Drag City in September, is definitely a Bill Callahan record, its tropes familiar to anyone who has followed the man’s work from his days when he recorded as (smog).
His baritone voice doesn’t hide his cruelly honest lyrics.
He can be funny, but he’s not a comedy singer. “Javelin Unlanding” starts with Callahan saying, “You looked like worldwide armageddon/while you slept,” which is terrifying but also bombastic, even though he delivers it in an understated voice.
His wryness is evident from the get-go on “The Sing:” “The only words I’ve said today are beer and thank you,” which might cause some to believe that it’s a riff on loneliness. Callahan is willing to meet halfway in that regard.
“I can see it being (lonely). It’s more introspective … you kind of have to be in your mind for that time,” he said.
“Small Plane” is one of the album’s best songs, and it’s quickly become a favorite among fans. It’s a sweet look into control and trust – and letting both of those go (see the silent movie-inspired video in our music blog at austin360.com).There’s also plenty of gratitude : “Danger, I never think of danger/I really am a lucky man/flying this small plane.” There is a particularly lovely recording of it Callahan did for NPR, playing the song solo at the Sixth Street and Avenue B Community Garden in New York. The setting matches the song.
“It’s a little haven in the city and you can go and sit in and just see the green instead of the brown and grey of New York,” he said.
Bill Callahan at FFF
7:30 p.m. Friday on the Yellow Stage.