I Got Lighter, Then I Got Dark Again: Two Nights with Bill Callahan

Late-August eulogies, love letters, and sardonic, patriotic cries

On Wednesday evening at Scholz Garten, a half hour before the first act, bodies were glommed in loose clusters cascading back from the patio’s low stage. Folks on the perimeter perched on picnic tables for a view. Those without tickets camped out just beyond the gates. Not a drop of casual behavior dotted the air, but that’s Texas homegrown and it’s vast.

Bill Callahan at Scholz Garten – night one, Aug. 28 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

At 10pm, Bill Callahan and company boarded the stage. Matt Kinsey’s Gibson SG, Brian Beattie’s electric upright bass, and Adam Jones’ cherry red drum kit backlined the bandleader. Nylon arpeggios wandered into a cover of Silver Jews’ “Trains Across the Sea” in remembrance of David Berman, Drag City label mate of Callahan’s gone too soon.

Onto their own “Riding with the Feeling,” Callahan intoned, “It’s never easy to say goodbye.” In addition to the flood of feeling, a certain solemnness of ritual maintained throughout Wednesday’s show, although not without some comic ease from the frontman.

“This venue’s very nice. They even got us Franklin barbecue,” he chopped. “No one’s ever stood in line for us. Well, no one’s ever stood in line for us for that.”

String ’Em Up: (l-r) Kinsey, Callahan, and Beattie on night two, Aug. 29 (Photo by John Anderson)

Inversely, night two – reserved for the die hards who sold out the Garten in haste – presented a subtle looseness atop the matching bouquet of the previous night: August body odor and fried food à la beer hall. There’s a scent not unfamiliar to any Austin show. Eyebrows furrowed, lips smirked, the baritone singer focusing everyone‘s attention inflected, bone-dry, “I smell marijuana.”

Someone shouts “Welcome to Austin!” as if the band never set foot here before, much less reside nearby. Nonetheless, the doors of ease are opened and stay propped for the rest of the night. The quartet launched jaunting and wry into “America.”

Jake Xerxes Fussell, night two (Photo by John Anderson)

Briefly, lest we forget, Jake Xerxes Fussell from Durham by way of Chattahoochee primed both evenings, slathering Southern imagery for the following fingerpicking folk tradition. His sincerest cowboy lilt brought out a small but expressive pocket of supporters on Wednesday, from whom he dodged friendly heckles gracefully through the set. Equal parts Delta blues and recluse folk, Fussell handled his Telecaster with a percussive plunking and picking reminiscent of his modern brother Blake Mills’ stringed intonations.

Trellised by the headliner’s steadfast croons, 90 minutes each night, Callahan delivered. The backing band danced around the rhythm guitar, and Beattie quite literally so, with his downward jaunt on upright bass. Kinsey’s guitar swung illustrative, from a cattle trot to cacophony.

Outside of this year’s hearty Shepherd in Sheepskin Vest, a handful of Smog classics fleshed out the set-list, including “Let Me See the Colts” and “Say Valley Maker.” On a particularly pastoral rendition of “Let’s Move to the Country,” the family man filled in the blanks with parts of his biography: “Let’s have a family. Let’s have a baby.”

Late sticky summer, outside in Austin, sandwiched among Scholz Garten’s painted German mountain ranges and the concrete slabs of downtown parking complexes, eulogies, love letters, and sardonic patriotic cries sounded about right.

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Bill Callahan, Smog, Silver Jews, David Berman, Matt Kinsey, Brian Beattie, Adam Jones, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Blake Mills

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