Bill Callahan's Cold-Blooded Clarity

elvis costello(Photo by Milica Wren)

Back when I was a little, little kid one of my favorite songs was "Talkin' Baseball," otherwise known as "Willie, Mickey and the Duke." It's sort of like "We Didn't Start the Fire," except only about baseball and not excruciatingly awful. Willie, Mickey and the Duke referred to the three great center fielders of the '50s and '60s who all got their start in New York and would go on to become Hall of Famers -- Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider.

Whenever I think of Bill Callahan and Drag City, I think of this song.

(Much more after the jump -- I'm sorta going somewhere with this, I think.)

Drag City is best known as the longtime (and only) home of three mysterious, cult-favorite singer-songwriter types: David Berman (Silver Jews), Will Oldham (Palace [Whatever], Bonnie "Prince" Billy) and Bill Callahan (Smog).

Mays or Mantle, Mantle or Mays -- they are widely recognized as two of the all-time greats, deservedly so. Berman and Oldham take those roles; they've certainly never lacked for fawning attention (guilty as charged!). I'm not sure who's who -- I guess I'd lean towards Oldham as Mays thanks to his longetivity, while Berman's star burned brighter, but not as often.

But then there's Duke Snider. Not nearly the household name and sure, his career wasn't quite as great as his peers. But man, in another era, with different company, he'd be remembered more much fondly.

Bill Callahan is pretty much the Duke Snider of the Drag City trio.

He tends to, unfairly, get lost in the shuffle. He didn't cultivate mystery by refusing to tour, like Berman. He doesn't pop up in hip indie movies or Kanye West videos, like Oldham. If you Google him you might accidentally end up reading about some dude who used to coach the Oakland Raiders.

All Callahan has done for the past 20 years is make very good to jaw-droppingly great records, going about his business with a workmanlike diligence that suits his songs. He's ostensibly an indie rocker but he's mostly just a songwriter.

His show Friday night at the Black Cat was a perfect microcosm of his career: There were about half as many people there as there should have been but those of us there were lulled into a state of hypnosis by his singular trance-folk, in which his voice -- a perfect deadpan drawl -- serves as the conduit to a land of mystery, horses and bramble.

His lyrics are disarmingly straightforward. "I love my mother/I love my father/I love my sisters too/I bought this guitar/To pledge my love/To pledge my love to you," he sang on "Rock Bottom Riser." Sometimes it's hard to tell if he's putting one over on all of us, especially because there's this almost-smirk that rarely disappears from his face.

But there's one lyric from "Cold Blooded Old Times," which closed the show, in which he sing-speaks about a "cold-blooded clarity," and that's exactly what he delivers. There's no ambiguity to what Callahan says. There's very little to decipher. And that's what makes it hit so hard.

The majority of the set focused on Callahan's two solo albums since giving up the Smog moniker. He was backed by four musicians -- violin, cello, bass, lightly brushed drums -- but they rarely raised much of a ruckus. Things remained meditative throughout, so we could ponder lyrics such as "Well I used to be sort of blind/Now I can sort of see," even though the point is that there's not much to ponder.

The first moment of real energy was the final song before the encore, "Let Me See the Colts," in which the volume finally swelled above a minor din a before things calmed down and Callahan pondered, "Is there anything as still as/Sleeping horses?"

Bill Callahan - "Eid Ma Clack Shaw"

By David Malitz |  June 15, 2009; 3:01 PM ET Live Last Night , Old Favorite Thing
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So let me get this straight, a memorable song about three great baseball outfielders who all played on different teams, reminds you of 3 artists on one small indie label! And one such artist on that label who has earned a small critic's following that can't even fill the Black Cat, and has apparently based on the few song titles you listed, not generated anything close to even a "Talkin' Baseball," you compare to a baseball star. You want us to believe that Callahan is Duke Snyder, even though to look at some gauges that some folks might apply, your comparison does not work--Smog/Callahan has never had an album in the top 5 of the Village Voice year-end album critics poll and likely not the Pitchfork year end poll either, and he certainly hasn't been namechecked in the song of a prominent performer. He probably has never been in the top of the college radio polls let alone excited more than a small blog and chatboard following online. Yes critics and sales can be misleading, but if you don't have that evidence to support your claim, maybe you should lower down the hyperbole a little and just praise Callahan for being an entertaining indie-folkie without the comparison to a baseball hall of famer who made 8 allstar teams and hit 400 some home runs.

Posted by: outsider8 | June 15, 2009 7:13 PM

i realy like his voice

Posted by: mat4love | June 17, 2009 5:20 AM

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