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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: Bill Callahan and Hidden Ritual

Posted By on Thu, Jul 14, 2011 at 1:45 PM

That Bill Callahan … what a gentleman. Two years ago the Drag City singer/songwriter adorned us Pittsburghers twice within a few months: first at a crammed Paul's CDs (one attendee even fainted -- due to the claustrophobic viewing conditions or Callahan's soulful croon? We'll never know) and second, well, the second show never happened. The electricity at the Thunderbird Café (and all of Lawrenceville) stalled due to a ridiculous thunderstorm. No worries, as the man loves us enough to return in support of Apocalypse, his new album. To add, last Friday's show was housed at the sculpture court behind the Carnegie Museum of Art. Longtime Callahan or Smog fans who were absent should quit reading -- you'll hit yourself hard for missing this one!

Following the Ladybug Transistor gig last Thursday, this was the Carnegie Museum of Art's second outside concert of the summer, thanks to folks at the Andy Warhol Museum's Sound Series. Let's demand more shows at this open space! Picture a spacious stage underneath a brick overpass with the Carnegie Mellon School of Engineering building lit in the background. The crowd of 20-somethings (mostly couples) relaxed on the shaded stone steps and enjoyed the perfect summer evening alongside a scattering of older folks. I'm honestly having difficulties manufacturing a negative aspect of the night -- even the sound levels were perfect.

Austin, Texas' Hidden Ritual switched their echo pedals on around 8:00. Their mixture of Beat Happening-like simplicity and darker Echo and the Bunnymen songwriting alone made the $15 ticket worth it. The guitarist's delayed vocals and massive guitar sound (pocketed through his tiny amp) added to their dark tone, but what I dug most was the bassist's staccato lead bass lines. The drummer's repetitious Boom-CHE-Boom-Boom beat was aided with a pair of bongos substituting for toms…and just for the record, it takes a real man to replace a set of drum toms with a set of bongos. Touché!

Part Johnny Cash, part Mr. Rogers, the white-suited Callahan and his backing band soon approached the lit stage after a Kraftwerk-soundtracked set change. For nearly two hours, the extremely gentle moments contrasted with the intensity and fascination of a tightrope walker balancing with no net below him. Callahan stuck to his acoustic guitar, while the other guitarist (who looked a bit ticked off the entire show) noised these panicked flourishes to the songs -- as if a custom "Apocalypse" guitar pedal lay at his feet. The cymbal scraping, hand drumming, and improv sound textures proved the bare-footed drummer's subtle ability to utilize every inch of his miniature kit. Mr. Callahan chose the right musicians to layer his songs to life.

The set concentrated on his new album along with an unexpected number of old Smog tunes -- in fact, his set list spoiled us by the end. Favorites like "In the Pines" and a forceful "Say Valley Maker" appeared along side new songs like the grooving "America." After urging the crowd to cheer for an encore, Callahan granted us with "The Well," "The Sycamore," and ended with "Blood Red Bird" from the Red Apple Falls album. With the exception of a few random requests here and there, the crowd was speechless.

Bill Callahan could've fulfilled his contractual obligations with a few Apocalypse tunes and call it a day, but instead he granted us a special night of music impossible to replicate in any bar or venue. With recent bookings like Low, Keren Ann and Ted Leo, the Warhol Sound Series is bringing sweet sounds for our ears, and I expect more in the future. To end, I'd like to add that the crowd in attendance at this was probably one of the best-looking groups of concertgoers I've seen at a show. Seriously, Pittsburgh, you're looking good!

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