Your Cheapest Whisky and Soda Please, To Settle Me into Greying Majesty.

The ticket company, that coy knobcluster, has been dragging out the unnecessary teasing, sending me messages for months about how my tickets for Bill Callahan at Usher Hall will be arriving any moment. I’ve been doing my homework all that time, listening to his last four or so albums on repeat like a sonofabitch. I’ve done the preparation, and I’m ready to cross through the shrivelling Autumn to get to the West End and the Usher Hall.

Usher Hall is a venerable elderly Edinburgundian building with the sorts of decorative bits and squiggles that nobody could be fucking bothered with anymore, and was built a century or so ago off the back of money made by a guy who got rich by selling the idea of blended whisky and decided he would like to stick his name on a venue. Usher Hall is, I think, the biggest venue in Edinburgh that doesn’t double as a stadium where drunk frenzied people watch balls being kicked around. It’s a fancy old posh place, with Ionic columns on either side of the symphony-sized stage, but it also sometimes feels like it is teetering on the geriatric. Callahan’s music is pretty much the complete pissing opposite of the old-fashioned grandeur of Usher Hall. He’d better suit playing out in the open air of evening, or somewhere small, crowded, warm, and intimate. Even if it is in this fancy cold cave, I’m delighted to see him, what with the silver-topped guy having come all the way from America.

The cheapest whisky isn’t that cheap at Usher Hall, but the place has a fucking reputation to uphold, the grand old pile. It’s Famous Grouse at one of the bars, and the first time I order a pair to get me off the starting line, a glittering sweet sugar granule of a barman suggests that I probably needn’t bother to waste money on a prim little second glass bottle of soda water and offers to only put a single ice cube in, so I can ‘enjoy the taste’ of the Grouse. Best of all, the bright golden honey-hearted lad, on the basis of my ordering two drinks, assumes that I have bought the second one for a hypothetical someone I have come to the show with. I don’t have it in my flaking bones to tell him otherwise, and as quick as I can before I collapse, I pop around the corner where the innocent cannot see me and I down my two whiskies. They both needed more soda.

Inside the hall, there Bill is – a little figure on stage, flanked by an electric guitarist, a bodyless bassist, and a drummer, who are all hardly doing much to fill the goddamn orchestral space around Callahan. In front of the Usher Hall stage where the cheaper tickets lead is a large milling area. I’ve been to see Idles and Future Islands down there, and spent most of the time desperate to find a not-too-uncomfortable corner where I could collapse wheezing on the floor and still hope to see something on the stage. Bill Callahan, that calm troubadour, doesn’t suit discomfort as far as I’m concerned, so this time I’ve splashed out all over the place, and paid the extra percentage to get a ticket way up in the Grrrand Circle, where there are actual seats. I feel like I should have worn goddamn opera clothes. From up here, I can see each glowing rectangle below lifted gently to capture a picture of Callahan. Not going to lie, there’s a dizzying shithead appeal to being up high above people. I hope to hellzapiss I don’t get used to it. If I become the sort of snorting aristocratic cockunt addicted to lovely luxury, I’ll start demanding better standards of drinks, and I don’t think seeing concerts with the aid of your not-cheapest Champagne is a viable long-term financial plan.

There’s a school of thought that seating is fucking death to the energy of a band, and there’s something to that, although there’s not much of a jumpy vibe to the massed crowds down below me anyway. They stand in reverent, lifeless silence during the songs. Now Bill Callahan isn’t a jump-up-and-down act, but there doesn’t even seem to be even a gentle swaying in the standing room. Instead, cutting through the silence there are occasional unsettling and incomprehensible bursts of hysterical laughter from some of the inmates. These haunted laughs confuse Bill, and he expresses this confusion in a drawled ‘Wha-ut?’. I’m just as confused as you, Billy, lad. There’s also an odd guy sitting next to me who occasionally shows his approval by mooing out ‘A-Yoooo-OH!’.

Callahan’s thing is that he sings from a place where things feel quiet, simple and true. That shit is much harder to do than it looks, particularly in the non-stop shrieking spewstorm of modern existence. On stage, he looks a twangy rural David Byrne, his guitar is two sizes too small, and his measured drawl manages to fill this empty hall like deep, slow falling dusk. I was expecting him to mostly play tracks off his new album, ‘Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest’, but after a couple of songs, he breaks out ‘America!’, the first Callahan I ever heard, and the one that slowly reeled me in, listen after listen. Played live, Bill pronounces it drawn out, Uh – Merica, and he lets the tune stretch out for room until it feels like it contains all that is good and bad and beautiful about the U.S.A., with sudden crashes of feedback from the guy on electric guitar, followed by intonations to Cash and Kristofferson. The tune is a swelling anthem, thumping and jangling like a giant fatty glorious heart.

He does ‘The Ballad of the Hulk’, a song about gently wondering if your past would be different if you’d been angry enough to go for violent transformation. A balding guy a few rows down from me in the posh seats wearing the world’s least angry pullover shakes his tight little fists in the air. Bill does ‘Let’s move to the Country’ from his Smog days, a celebration of undramatic love. As I’m belching clouds of Grouse to kill the birds, he does ‘Watch Me Get Married’ which gets a reference to the album title in:

‘As the lion returned to the family crest
The shepherd took off his sheepskin vest
And the children came pouring and pouring out of my chest
Oh, all of the lives I had carried
Just staggered me’

When played between my shitty old headphones, ‘Watch Me Get Married’ is sweet and waltzing, but on stage it gets a dose of desperate intensisty. Meanwhile ‘Drover’ off of ‘Apocalypse’ needs all the space Usher Hall has and more, because live this song is a gathering storm, and when Callahan sings

‘one thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind’

you fucking believe it.

A darkened, old-fashioned, fancy joint like Usher Hall is not the ideal setting to see a guy whose music sounds, at its best, like endless breezes rippling across whole grassy swathes of sprawling American countryside. Still, there were a few moments, just a few, when Bill was doing his thing and I almost forgot that I was in the cooling odd gloom of Edinburgh, and could imagine I was out there in the endless warm and gentle grass instead.

Total Number of Whisky Sodas: Five whiskies and an inadequate four sodas
Hangover: Scratching at the bottom of the throat; the gloomy suspicion that a cold will afflict me tomorrow.

Bill Callahan:

-Larry Dives

back in that hole

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