Sure, it’s not uncommon for a support act to set the proverbial tone for the headliner, but how many can give them historical context? While the crowd wait for the artist formerly known as Smog and his sparse, gorgeous variety of disassembled Americana, Cath and Phil Tyler perform some of the rootsiest American folk you’ll hear this side of Appalachia. With a set they describe as “the hits of 1848”, tragic ballads and playground sing-song make for a delightful curio of a performance. Phil Tyler’s guitar work is enchanting and the pair’s rough vocal harmonies are oddly appealing, though with any act like this, it’s hard to see the line between authenticity and affectation. Though if you ever wanted to hear every cliché about American captured in one sentence, it’ll have to be this gem from Phil Tyler: “This song is called ‘Dying Boy’. It’s about a dying boy.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention to Bill Callahan over the last few years must have noticed that he’s in something of a renaissance. Last year’s plaintive Dream River and 2011’s tense Apocalypse perfected the unique brand of folk he’s been working towards since he dropped the Smog moniker, one imbued with a rugged American naturalism set against a delicate palette firmly rooted in the slow-core sounds he made his name with. The set tonight flits between those two records, with only the occasional detour. Kicking off with ‘The Sing’ and ‘Javelin Unlanding’, the band take a delicate touch, and it almost feels like we’re watching the songs unfurl of their own accord. Callahan’s baritone is a joy to hear, deadpan and cutting on ‘America’ and irresistibly tender on the Dream River standout ‘Small Plane’. While it will obviously disappoint some, it is a testament to his current strength that Callahan pulls off the show with very few forays into his back catalogue. The inclusion of the hilarious, poignant ‘Dress Sexy at my Funeral’ is a great moment, but one that also shows just how removed his new material is from his days as Smog.
When the encore rolls around, we are treated to ‘Too Many Birds’, the closer decided on after an onslaught of shouted requests from the audience, and ‘Rock Bottom Riser’, arguably one of the finest songs he’s even penned. It’s a stirring moment, and for a song so quiet and contained, it feels powerful enough to chill the audience to stillness. Basically, it’s everything that made this a wonderful gig distilled into four minutes.