There are few activities I was pumped by as a pre-teen to which I still find myself committed. Over the last two months, I’ve been reminded why some enjoyments haven’t changed with age. Crowded venues, high ticket costs, spilled beer on new shoes, and a redundant resolution at night’s end that I won’t stand for hours hoping for a return on the bet my back makes, I still attend shows. I think it comes down to one thing: participation. Granted, it may not be the most sincere form of camaraderie—we’re a bunch of people standing arms crossed in a dark room embodying our autonomy with a most uninviting stance—but nonetheless, it is participation. Ask any fan, any performer, and they’ll tell you they’ve experienced it.
Certain acts creep so low beneath the radar that only a few devotees are let in on the secret shows they play. BKLYN is rampant with them, and there are bands who gain major momentum via college town NPR affiliates; they play relatively small venues, so only gals glued to their computers can snatch tickets in time. On the flip side of the pop culture record, there are new, exciting, and expensive monster balls, too. I’m grateful to say, there are still plenty of good ‘ol singer/songwriters who gather a fitting crowd regardless of venue, wardrobe, advertising, or irony earning points. Bill Callahan and David Bazan are those types of musicians.
Recently, I attended a Bill Callahan show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I was first introduced to Callahan when a friend from North Carolina gave me a mixtape with a few Smog songs on it. Smog’s sound was experimental, lo-fi, and dissonant. After twenty years of Callahan making music, Drag City Records picked him up in 2007. Callahan dropped the pseudonym and began releasing his albums under his own name. Since then, his music has taken on a more refined, produced sound while still retaining its nitty grittiness. His newest collection of songs is balloted this way on Drag City’s website:
“A mirror held up to the self and then turned around to the world. This record makes us wonder what has really happened in the last 100 years. And what will happen in the next 10. The soul of your country called and left you a message. Seven messages.
Callahan ushered in his own musical “Apocalypse” with catastrophic instrumentation and delivery on stage that night. His performance destroyed the summery distractions outside the walls of the Music Hall. Callahan sings baritone from the pit of his stomach; his deep voice lacks much tonal variation making it seem sort of emotionless, but the powerful imagery of his lyrics does the howling for him. Particularly noteworthy was his rendition of “Drover.” Take the track as it’s recorded there, add two very powerful drum and guitar solos, plus the energy of a grateful crowd and you’ve got something worthy of a sincere, eyes closed hip swaying hop and sing along. When the song finally ended, Callahan reacted with the remark, “Finally an audience who knows how good that song is.” We did.
This man inhabits a sort of effortless charisma. Joanna Newsom, a gal twenty years his junior and every hunky hipster’s dream boat was impressed by it,too. Counter to many a celebrity break up, the dissolution of their romance has done nothing to hamper his fans’ commitment. It doesn’t matter who he’s with. All that to say, it’s difficult to gauge what sort of man he is privately because he doesn’t leverage details of his personal life as a marketing tool. On stage, however, he carries the refined sensibility of a seasoned performer, well-learned and willing to contribute to the ever fluctuating scene with steady songs of introspection. After a remarkably long and loud pleading from the crowd for an encore, his white linen suit finally strutted the stage for an encore. He joked with the audience like he was grateful for our camaraderie, but even more grateful that he could poke fun at our pleas. The night ended with a sincere expression of thanks and a courteous bow. We were all set to go home satisfied.
Several weeks prior to that, I saw David Bazan at the Bowery Ballroom immediately preceded by a second screening The Tree of Life. Setting up a performance by Bazan with the film that A.O. Scott said, “ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them” seemed fitting. David Bazan, the former frontman of Pedro the Lion recently released his third solo album “Strange Negotiations” on Barsuk records.
Bazan packed out the place with expectant fans. The Bowery Ballroom is one of NYC’s most legendary venues, but Bazan had been playing house shows for a few seasons prior to this traditional tour. His strategic approach to fostering a fan base on a dime added to the excitement in the crowd that night. House shows make for intimate performances, and while I’m sure a faithful few at the Bowery had also caught a house show, most of us were seeing him on stage for the first time in a while. Like the habit of wearing a black t-shirt (the uniform he’s worn on stage for years), he’s settled into a performance routine. It starts with a long set of songs interrupted with a not so spontaneous question/answer time with the audience, followed by more songs, followed by a solo encore. This routine keeps people coming back. While they know the show remains the same, it is bolstered and flavored by the journey he’s unabashedly welcomed his fans to participate in since the early nineties. And they are a devoted bunch. “Strange Negotiations” was produced by fans via online giving and Bazan credited them as “associate producers” on the album sleeve.
Much like his other solo projects, this album continues the account of his publicized departure with Christianity. He asks many of the same questions The Tree of Life confronts while no less easily arriving at a different set of conclusions. The song “Level With Yourself” carries the burden of the wrestling that imbues entire album.
“wake up in the morning
check your revelation
making sure you know it
as well as you can
then sell it to yourself man
cause it won’t make a difference
if everyone believes it
but you don’t believe it
just level with yourself
level with yourself”
The ins and outs of these performers’ personal lives and the material they address is undoubtedly affirmed and contested by their fans. Yet, it remains the case, that its source has lasted. In a very sincere way, they’ve figured out how to make their work habit forming. Every performance and song is imbued with personality. Singer/songwriters of ages past can make the same claim. Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and of course Bob Dylan have outlasted many of their counterparts in large part because of a life long sustainable approach to their work. And if slow and steady wins the race for a lifelong career in the music business, Bazan and Callahan surely have a shot at it.