Wednesday, May 23 , 2018, 1:47 pm | Overcast 63º

 
 
 
 

Jeff Moehlis: Bill Callahan’s America

The artist formerly known as Smog and opener Michael Chapman impressive in Santa Barbara debuts

The audience at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Friday night was treated to two amazing off-mainstream artists from two generations, both visiting Santa Barbara for the first time.

The evening started with an impressive set by 70-year-old British guitarist and singer/songwriter Michael Chapman, whose acoustic finger-picked folk style calls to mind John Fahey and Roy Harper, but has its own unique charm. It was fascinating to see Chapman — who joked, “Is this a town or a shopping mall?” — effortlessly switch between different guitar tunings and rip away.

Chapman’s set started with “In the Valley,” originally released 40 years ago, with spoken/sung lyrics about loss and regret. He also sang the newer “Memphis in Winter,” which he admitted “won’t get me the key to the city.” There were also cool instrumentals, including the slide-heavy “Fahey’s Flag” that commemorated a dinner party in which Fahey — who Chapman described as “a wonderful guitar player and a rather bizarre human being” — ended up naked except for a flag from the Nuremberg Rally.

Chapman nicely set the stage for Bill Callahan, who has been recording music for more than 20 years, first using the alias Smog and now in his own name. Much of the charm of Callahan’s music is his distinctive baritone voice and his lyrics, which seem to reveal greater depth with each listen. Callahan sang and played a nylon string guitar, and was joined by the amazing Matt Kinsey on electric guitar and Neal Morgan on drums.

More than half of Callahan’s set was drawn from the recent albums Apocalypse and Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, but a few songs were from his Smog days, namely, “Our Anniversary,” “Say Valley Maker,” “Let Me See the Colts,” “The Well” and “Bathysphere,” the latter the only representative of Smog’s more lo-fi and experimental early output.

One show highlight was the mesmerizing “Universal Applicant,” but to my ears the best of the night — and one of the best of Smog/Callahan’s prodigious catalog — was “America!”

Singer-songwriter Bill Callahan.
Singer-songwriter Bill Callahan. (Chris Taylor photo)

Musically, “America!” alternates between some slower picked notes from Callahan and an almost-funky groove complemented with shards of sustained, distorted guitar from Kinsey. Things really kick in when Callahan sings “Captain Kristofferson / Buck Sergeant Newbury / Leatherneck Jones / Sergeant Cash / What an Army, what an Air Force, what a Marines / America!” This refers to singers Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, George Jones and Johnny Cash, all of whom served in the armed forces.

When Callahan follows this by speaking “I never served for my country,” it’s open to interpretation if this is a statement of regret, or how he sees himself in comparison to the pantheon he has just listed off, either as a person or as a musician.

Another great verse of “America!” says “Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native Americon / America! / Well everyone’s allowed a past they don’t care to mention,” the last phrase arguably being equally relevant to individuals as it is to a country.

Fair enough. Here’s to the future.

Setlist

Riding For The Feeling
Baby’s Breath
Honeymoon Child
Too Many Birds
Eid Ma Clack Shaw
Universal Applicant
Drover
Our Anniversary
America!
Say Valley Maker
Let Me See The Colts
The Well

Encore:
Jim Cain
Rococo Zephyr
Bathysphere

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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