It seems oddly perverse to use words to describe Bill Callahan’s show at the Sydney Opera house. Not only because the man himself used them so sparingly – both while singing, and in his gentle asides to the audience – but also because the show reached a level of greatness that is difficult to properly describe. If that sounds like hyperbole, it probably is, but I can think of no other way to explain the spell that descended upon the Joan Sutherland Theatre from the moment the white suited Callahan took to the stage, to the moment he strummed out the last chords of Riding For The Feeling and took his leave.
Backed by an incredibly tight band, Callahan showed a willingness to play with his own material. Almost every song was stretched out till it became twice as long as the versions that appear on his albums. Rather than feeling like aimless jams, the songs became sparse epics: America!, arguably the lightest song on his magnificent Apocalypse, was transformed into a soulful and emotional ballad as it stretched out further and further, almost threatening to snap.
Callahan repeated his lyrics over and over, till they became almost like mantras. The Sing’s “I’ve got limitations like Marvin Gaye” became “I’ve got limitations like sweet, sweet, sweet, Marvin Gaye” and sometimes even entire choruses were uttered four or five times, gaining renewed significance with every utterance. By the third time Callahan intoned, “if you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat”, the last line of the beautiful Too Many Birds, the words were dripping with power. It would be an exaggeration to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, but nonetheless, as I sat there at the song’s conclusion, dabbing at my eyes, I slowly noticed that quite a lot of people around me were doing the same.
Callahan’s music has always been a direct, unflinching engagement with our essential humanity. Indeed, that is perhaps the best way to describe the show: humane. Every line Callahan sung, every note his band played, burst with life, and love, and sincerity. Even the nonsense chorus of Eid Ma Clack Shaw reverberated through the room with a startling warmth and honesty.
In a live interview he gave a few hours before the show, Callahan was asked why he liked keeping things so sparse. There was a weighty pause. “Silence is god,” he said eventually, with a smile. By the conclusion of the show, Callahan proved that the answer wasn’t just some wry way of deflecting a question; even the spaces between his notes became charged with power. In that way, as in so many others, the gig stopped being just a gig. It became something else. Something transcendental. You didn’t need to have seen the show to realize that. You could have just stood on the steps of the Opera House, watching the audience come flooding out as though in a daze, unusually quiet, but with an expression on their faces that looked quite a lot like bliss.