Bill Callahan @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 1 Oct
Bill Callahan brings an embarrassment of riches to Edinburgh's Usher Hall
At first, the three-quarters full Usher Hall seems like a shame for Bill Callahan, an overestimation by the promoter that might poorly impact the night. But, without the need to jostle for space or cram into such close quarters, there's more space for the beautiful arrangements and candid lyrical snapshots to envelop the attentive audience and reverberate around the ornate surroundings.
It seems to fit well with the overtly pastoral tones of Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest which makes up about half the set. It mines emotion from its relative sparseness, while working to further the notion of Callahan as contented family man, rather than the world-weary, existential troubadour of years gone by.
A beautiful rendition of Trains Across the Sea pays tribute to Silver Jews' David Berman, after which Callahan is uncharacteristically tongue-tied. America! allows the band to first flex its improvisational muscles, with electric guitar, upright bass and subdued drums weaving in and around Callahan's acoustic. It's also the first adlib of the night, as Callahan waxes lyrical about a disappointing Wagamama dinner, intoning its “bland and tasteless” flavour into a demand for some spice (though he's a fan of the name).
Drover is another highlight with a particularly expansive improvisational core, with additional harmonica adding to an incredible display of technical virtuosity. The song leaps and dips through a range of rolling solos before returning to a final, triumphant 'wild, wild country' refrain. Son of the Sea demonstrates the mix of playful and poignant that characterises the new album. 'Giving birth nearly killed me' elicits the biggest laugh of the night, while sitting comfortably next to 'Some say I died / And all that survived was my lullabies': a succinct expression of the uneasy relationship between parenthood and creativity.
The Beast closes the main set with some intense, dubby textures courtesy of the return of support band, Dallas Acid (complete with gong-brushing), drawing the song out to twice its regular length and wringing every ounce of sound out of it.
Opening the encore, Riding for the Feeling is the most singularly beautiful moment of the night. Callahan contorts his way through the deceptively simple lyrical meandering, imbuing the title phrase with an urgent profundity. There's another quick adlib, as he sings about walking by the castle, the sky a 'perfect rotten peach', presumably a reference to the amazing sunset a few hours prior.
“Would that have been a suitable goodbye?” Callahan asks at the song's end. It certainly would have been, but we're still treated to Rock Bottom Riser, anyway. An embarrassment of riches, this whole night.