This was almost a first – a gig we walked out on before it started. We’re glad we didn’t though.
We turn up just before midday at the tiny Hoxton Hall for matinee performance by the great Bill Callahan. An intimate gig with just Bill and his regular guitarist, Matt Kinsey, toward the end of their residency, the fifth of six shows. A Sunday afternoon. Bill looking back and picking songs from his voluminous back catalogue, both as Smog and as a solo artist. Sounds perfect. What could possibly go wrong?
The venue is a Victorian music hall, bang in the East End, with cast iron balconies and tons of charm. A beneficiary of Lottery and Heritage funding, it is one of a kind – the only remaining salon music hall in London.
First off, whilst the venue was characterful, it was also constrictingly narrow – think skinny 80s tie narrow. Then have rows of uncomfortable old chairs bang next to each other, so you can tell what your neighbour had for breakfast – three days ago.
Then do away with a support band and have a stand up comedian. Great – quick turnaround – not having to lug drum kits and hammond organs off stage for the two guitar set up to follow. Unfortunately though, comic Harry Deansway’s schtick was the “I know I’m a bit useless and not that funny” thing which ended up as a self fulfilling prophecy.
Next rather than have a bunch of songs playing as a warm up, have an oscillating drone which varied minimally in tone and volume to the point we were reaching for the ibuprofen when Bill and Matt arrived on stage almost two hours after the doors opened. Teeth were ground, there was no respite from it.
We were cramped, thirsty with booming headaches. We were both well and truly on edge. Bill and Matt had to play a blinder to cut through our fug.
And boy did they just.
With Bill on a battered on nylon strung acoustic and Matt on a Gibson SG with a bunch of effects pedals, it was a spare affair. It showed off Bill’s phrasing perfectly, delivering his special commentary on life in America in his trademark baritone. As the years have gone on, I’m convinced that he has been listening to Sinatra more and more, such is his ability to squeeze every last drop from a melody line, shunting the syllables around to bend at his will.
The setlist spanned Bill’s career featuring “Ex-Con” from Smog’s 1997 “Red Apple Falls” to his most recent solo album 2013’s “Dream River”. We also got a couple of traditional covers, “Walk That Lonesome Valley”, made famous by the Carter Family and a brilliant “Matty Groves”, the centrepiece of Fairport Convention’s “Liege and Lief”.
The latter song was superb. Bill suggested that the song was an “olde song – that’s old with an “e” on the end”. He stretched the adulterous tale over verse after verse. The story is that Matty and the wife of the local lord, Daniel, embark on a tryst whilst her husband is away. Word gets back to the grand fromage that his wife is up to no good and he returns to find Matty and missus in bed. Barnard demands Matty get dressed as he doesn’t want to kill a naked man and kills Matty in the subsequent duel. Daniel asks his wife if she still prefers Matty, to which she replies that she would rather have a kiss from a dead man’s lips. Barnard then ups the body count by a further one and kills Lady Daniel. The Lady and Matty are buried together.
The spare arrangement was further from the Fairport version and closer to this version by Doc Watson.
“I’m New Here” was a perfect illustration of the way the musicians worked together, Bill travis picking on his nylon guitar with Matt offering spare electrifying embellishments. The song has taken on something of a new life since it was covered by Gil Scott Heron on his final album.
As we made our way into the spring afternoon in a buzzing Hoxton, we put our reservations about the venue to one side. Bill and Matt had transcended the issues and produced a riveting performance.
Unfortunately though Matt couldn’t help himself and switched that bloody noisy drone on again just as we were making our exit.