Live At The Blue Moose, Iowa City, Iowa
June 30, 2011
Last week in Iowa, a woman was found dead in the cattle field, her toddler Granddaughter was found safe by her side.
At first, the authorities thought that maybe an over-protective cow had killed her, thinking that the woman was going to harm her calf. The newspaper reports mentioned how rare a death like this was, but exclaimed surprise and relieve that the huge beast had spared the little one.
A few days later, the husband of the woman revealed that an autopsy proved her death was caused by a stroke-not the cow-and that his wife would have wanted him to clarify this as it would have troubled her if she thought people worried about the disposition of cows.
Bill Callahan refers to this same topic in a song on his latest album, Apocalypse, so I felt the need to relay the story to him after his performance at the Blue Moose in Iowa City on Thursday night. There was no opportunity to engage with Mr. Callahan. In compliance with his desire to be a sepia toned mystery man, Bill left the stage as quickly as he entered it, saying very little in between but packing a deep, resonant punch with each song in his 90 minute set.
The murdering cattle story was meant to be an ice-breaker, to gently rib Callahan’s notion that the cattle within “” were really out to get him. Mainly, I wanted to see if our little Midwestern news story would be able to crack a smile from this stoic troubadour.
With matching jacket and slacks, Callahan looked the part of a wrinkled Ryan O’Neil character in Paper Moon without the mustache and without the hat that would merely mess up Bill’s enviable head of hair. His band, drummer Neal Morgan and guitarist Matt Kinsey also donned jackets with wearing what appeared to be a dark brown corduroy one that was completely out of place on a day when Iowa saw temperatures reach the mid-90's.
Callahan announced his primitively arranged partners around the third song in, but you could tell that he was signing the paychecks. Callahan would make eye contact with his guitarist Kinsey whenever it was time to return to the chorus or to wrap things up.
He’s also that man in charge in terms of melody, song structure, and lyrics. He rarely adheres to any formal arrangement, other than keeping things simple in terms of chord progression and delivering words in a deep baritone which often falls into a sing/speak execution.
From what I heard, Bill covered the entire Apocalypse record in addition to “Sycamore” from his debut solo release and other older tracks that seemed to generate the most response from the audience. Strangely though, the crowd seemed to response very positively to “America!” probably my least favorite cut on the new record and, admittedly, it did sound better on stage than on record.
He worked from a worn acoustic, finger picking strings and strumming repetitive chords. Matt Kinsey worked from a Gibson SB, occasionally creating layers of echo and delay from a small arsenal of pedals at his feet while he sat on a folding chair.
“Small” was the key with drummer Neal Morgan who had nothing but a hi-hat, snare, floor tom and a ride cymbal to work with as he alternated between his hands, brushes, and softly utilized drum sticks. From my vantage point, I could see he was bare foot while he kept time with his small bass drum.
Callahan’s emotionless voice was haunting if you allowed it, or an opportunity to speak with your neighbor as a few Thursday night residents decided to do, seemingly uncaring that their conversations could have been more appropriate in the bar in the next room.
Callahan seemed use to such insensitivities and even forgave us at the end of the set enough to ask “So, what do you want to hear?”
A plethora of indecipherable requests began making their way to the stage as Callahan told one audience member “I don’t want to do that one” before he simply turned to his stage mates and picked a song from his catalog and began to play.
Nobody complained, and he added another pair of songs before quickly walking off stage, through the crowd and towards the door, like he was afraid of what the herd might do to him.
And while the cattle may indeed be the least of his worries, it’s good that he still views them with trepidation.