Bill Callahan / Sir Richard Bishop
The Gravity Lounge; Charlottesville, VA

[09-04-2007]

The show was set in what seemed like a hybrid coffee house-bookstore, buried beneath several floors in Charlottesville’s historic downtown. Rows of seating insured a quiet ambience that was supplemented with candlelight and a backdrop designed as a faux red sky emerging behind a prop of tree outlines that rose above a grey stone wall. In all, it seemed like the kind of place the kids on The OC might visit to hear some über-hipster recite bad poetry. I expected to witness finger snapping.

Opening act Sir Richard Bishop was solid, even if he seemed to appear from some other time and place. Seated with his acoustic guitar, sporting a beard and an awesome ponytail, Bishop put his virtuoso talents on display for all to behold, lending vocals to just two of his many tracks. When he did sing, his voice proved haunting, dripping with an age that made the music seem nearly timeless. Early in his set, Bishop asked whether anyone in attendance was on LSD. At times, during his impressively complex acoustic pieces — particularly when met with droning background sounds and effects — I felt as though I might have been. I suspect that may be taken a tremendous compliment.

Callahan walked to the microphone dressed like a man returning from a southwestern funeral, as he was neatly attired in dark dress topped with grey hair. The onstage setup consisted of a fiddle, a drum and percussion set, a bass, and a guitar manned by the lead. The music matched Callahan’s appearance, as his deep, nearly monotonous voice rolled atop the many downbeat numbers. Much like the supporting act, Callahan’s set was enlivened by a folk sentiment that twisted through songs exploring human connections to physical environments and grounded the music in an earthy plot of inspiration and unity between band and audience. The band was very cohesive, and the whole set felt very egalitarian. The strange setting actually lent an intimacy to the show that is rarely experienced with acts so firmly established. Toward the end of the main set, Callahan even began discussing his dinner plans for after the show.

Throughout the show, the band marched through several of the tracks from Callahan’s newest record, Woke on a Whaleheart, including “Sycamore” and the brilliantly titled “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man.” The highlight of the show, however, came at the end of the encore, as the band eased into an effusive rendition of “The Well.” The track did well to bring all the night’s themes together in one final sonic moment, and I managed to escape the scene without ever seeing a guy with a beret and an awkward goatee scanning the room from behind a shiny cappuccino machine.

[Photo: Mark Parsons]