Cropped Out: Day 2

This is my report from Saturday, Sept. 24, the second day of the 2016 Cropped Out music festival in Louisville, Kentucky. To see my report and photos from the first day, click here.

Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan’s performance was the highlight of the Cropped Out festival’s second day, Saturday, Sept. 24, in Louisville. After 7 p.m., as the sun was going down, Callahan walked out onto the American Turner Club’s deck next to the Ohio River, where a small crowd had gathered for his performance. I was sitting right in front of the stage when Callahan stepped around me, casually remarking, “Watch out. There’s a piece of cheese.” Looking down, I saw a small chunk of pizza sitting next to me. After that odd little greeting, Callahan gave a breathtakingly beautiful performance — accompanied, as he often is, by the astounding guitarist Matt Kinsey, as well as bassist Jaime Zuverza (who’d played earlier in the day with his own band, Hidden Ritual).

As they played, insects along the rivers buzzed and chirped. Boats passed by on the river. Birds flying in V-shaped formations crossed the sky overheard. Callahan remarked that the temperature was perfect. In this enchanting setting, as dusk fell, Callahan aptly sang a few songs that mentioned rivers. His set list included songs from his superb recent albums Apocalypse and Dream River, as well as covers of Grateful Dead and Carter Family songs, finishing with a few of the tunes that Callahan performed years ago under the moniker Smog. Throughout it all, Callahan sang with his typical poise, quirky sense of timing and wry humor. Kinsey coaxed incredible sounds out of his Gibson SG electric guitar, almost like a second voice duetting with Callahan.

What a transporting and unforgettable hour it was.

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Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Jaime Zuverza, playing with Bill Callahan
Jaime Zuverza, playing with Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan at Constellation
Bill Callahan at Constellation

SET LIST: Riding for the Feeling / Spring / America! / Easy Wind (Grateful Dead cover) / Drover / Rococo Zephyr / Walk that Lonesome Valley (Carter Family cover) / I’m New Here (Smog song) / Say Valley Maker (Smog song) / Let Me See the Colts (Smog song)

(I saw another Callahan concert two days later, the early set on Sept. 26 at Constellation in Chicago. The set list was similar, with just a few differences, and Zuverza wasn’t present. It was another wonderful performance, even if it lacked the idyllic natural environment of Callahan’s Cropped Out show.)

Cropped Out’s second day started off with an odd, jokey set by Vern — more like performance comedy art than rock concert.

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Vern
Vern
Vern
Vern
Vern
Vern

The New Zealand band Opposite Sex followed, with an intriguing performance, showing the energy of punk rock but with a variety of other influences thrown into the mix. (The group’s recent album Hamlet even includes a couple of quieter songs played on piano.)

Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex

The next band up, Felchers, hadn’t been scheduled to perform on the Spooky Beach riverside deck, but it was one of only two stages with working electricity in the early afternoon, so that’s where they ended up. This Kentucky played straight-ahead hardcore punk, growl-shouting phrases like, “Oh my, this is unsettling!”

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Felchers
Felchers
Felchers
Felchers

The Louisville band Insect Policy mixed jazzy art-rock improvisation with punk-style vocals. One of the musicians was wearing an Acid Mothers Temple T-shirt, which gave a pretty good indication of Insect Policy’s influences.

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Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy

Creeping Pink played dreamy shoegaze rock, with vocals that blended into the guitars. (On Facebook, the Los Angeles band calls its stuff “Tape Glam.”)

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Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas

On the Spooky Beach deck, Chicago artist Matchess (aka Whitney Johnson) performed a lovely sonic collage, with recorded sounds blending into her vocals, keyboards and violin.

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Matchess
Matchess
Matchess
Matchess
Matchess
Matchess

As I mentioned above, Bill Callahan bassist Jaime Zuverza also fronted his own band at Cropped Out — Hidden Ritual — playing dark, brooding rock that reminded me of Protomartyr and the Cure.

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Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual

One of my favorite bands on Saturday was Bugg, apparently from Bloomington, Indiana. Searching online, I’ve found only scant information about Bugg, other than a demo posted on YouTube. Bugg’s pop-punk was bursting with energy. At moments, the group reminded me of the Replacements, and then the guys really won me over by doing a cover of the classic Guided By Voices tune “Bulldog Skin.”

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Bugg
Bugg
Bugg
Bugg

Power, a trio from Melbourne, Australia, lived up to its name, playing metal-punk riffs with intensity and precision.

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Power
Power
Power
Power
Power
Power

After Bill Callahan’s astonishing set came a complete change of pace: the St. Louis punk band Black Panties, led by a frontman clad in a black outfit, complete with a face-obscuring mask. The crowd inside Turners Tavern went wild, setting the tone for the rest of the evening, which was marked by much moshing. All of the sets during this late portion of Cropped Out’s second day, Pissed Jeans was the most iconoclastic and unpredictable, clearly having a great deal of fun. Saturday night also featured the festival’s only hip-hop, the longtime rapper Kool Keith, who got much of the crowd dancing.

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Black Panties
Black Panties

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Black Panties
Black Panties
Black Panties
Black Panties
Kool Keith
Kool Keith
Home Blitz
Home Blitz
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans

Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, a rock band from Columbus, Ohio, that stopped playing back in 2000, was back together at Cropped Out. I recall seeing this group open for Guided By Voices in 1997, and Saturday’s performance evoked that era of indie rock. The band sounded excellent.

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Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments

Cropped Out concluded with a strong performance by the Austin, Texas, post-punk band Spray Paint. A long two days of music came to an end with a jolt of energy.

Spray Paint
Spray Paint
Spray Paint
Spray Paint

Favorite records of 2013

These are my favorite records of 2013, the ones I enjoyed the most. Betraying my personal tastes, the list is dominated by alt-country and artists working somewhere around that genre’s vague boundaries. Simply put, a lot of my favorite artists came out with new records in 2013, and a lot of those records were very good. My honorable mentions include quite a few records I wish I could have squeezed into my top 10 — and I wish there’d been enough time to listen more closely to hundreds more.

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1. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
PUSH THE SKY AWAY

This is the quietest Nick Cave has made in a while, but it’s hardly mellow. In this tense and brooding suite of songs, Cave seems to be drifting in and out of dreams and unsettling nightmares, a world-weary traveler whose memories are slipping away. The fleeting images in his phantasmagoria flash with menace and yearning, climaxing in the epic “Higgs Boson Blues.” nickcave.com

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2. NEKO CASE
THE WORSE THINGS GET, THE HARDER I FIGHT,
THE HARDER I FIGHT, THE MORE I LOVE YOU

The latest in a succession of masterpieces by one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of the past decade and a half. Neko Case has said she drew more on her personal life for her lyrics this time, but the evocative poetry of her songs has always been a bit mysterious, and it remains so. Her voice is as beautiful as ever, too, surrounded here by an alluring variety of musical textures, including sonar blips, jingle bells, trumpets and cellos. Case seems to be creating her own genre, even as her innovative songs echo with the radio signal of classic tunes of the 20th century. nekocase.com
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3. ROBBIE FULKS
GONE AWAY BACKWARD

Many of the smart songs on this intimate, acoustic record could have been written in the 1930s, or maybe even the 19th century. With a couple of exceptions, they’re actually new, but this is music with a true old-timey spirit. Renaissance man Robbie Fulks pulls it off with apparent ease, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of classic and obscure country, folk and bluegrass. He knows the old stuff, and how to make it new again. robbiefulks.com
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4. BILL CALLAHAN
DREAM RIVER

As the title hints, this album feels like a nocturnal journey that flows with the logic of a dream. (In that way, it has a passing resemblance to the aforementioned Nick Cave record, though the two artists have distinct styles and personalities.) There’s a loose, jazzy vibe, punctuated at almost every turn by a singular guitar fill from Bill Callahan’s remarkable sideman Matt Kinsey. It all reaches shimmering perfection on my favorite song of 2013, “Summer Painter,” which finds Callahan musing on the meaning of work, as he sings about a summer job painting rich people’s boats. Then the story takes a turn toward the apocalyptic, when a hurricane hits and people blame the narrator: “Like all that time spent down by the water/had somehow given me control over the rain.” As peculiar as Callahan’s dreams may be, after a while, they start to seem like your own. dragcity.com/artists/bill-callahan

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5. MIKAL CRONIN
MCII

Like other records of the recent garage-rock explosion, Mikal Cronin’s second album is bursting with exuberance and energy. But it’s also carefully crafted, with a string section adding a touch of grandeur to all of its heartily strummed guitars and pounding drums. The spirit of late ’60s music is alive and well here. One song after another has the sort of melody that makes you want to sing along, thanks in no small part to the vulnerability in Cronin’s voice.  mikalcronin.bandcamp.com

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6. DAWN McCARTHY & BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
WHAT THE BROTHERS SANG

Dawn McCarthy has sung haunting harmonies on previous records by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka singer-songwriter Will Oldham. On this tribute to the Everly Brothers, they get equal billing. That’s apt, since the combination of these two voices was one of the year’s delights. The album doesn’t include Don and Phil Everly’s biggest hits, but the song list reminds us just how noteworthy that duo was. In the elegant folk-rock renditions on this record, what the brothers sang sounds beautiful and brand new. dragcity.com/artists/dawn-mccarthy-and-bonny-billy

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7. DAVID BOWIE
THE NEXT DAY

David Bowie’s new album seemed to come out of nowhere. And it sounds like it came from another time and place — maybe the 1980s, maybe somewhere on Planet Bowie. This artist who’s legendary for his innovations and constantly shifting persona isn’t necessarily trying to invent anything new this time around, but it’s a batch of excellent songs. The dense rock-band-orchestra arrangements deliver one great hook after another with some wallop, but more than anything, it’s terrific to hear Bowie singing again, sounding like classic Bowie. davidbowie.com

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8. JASON ISBELL
SOUTHEASTERN

The former Drive-By Truckers singer-guitarist finally came into his own with this masterful album, striking a chord with memorable turns of phrase and the rueful wisdom of a man who’s made mistakes and learned from them. jasonisbell.com

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9. MAVIS STAPLES
ONE TRUE VINE

Producer Jeff Tweedy’s clean, simple arrangements bring a warm glow to Mavis Staples’ glorious voice in this stirring set of gospel, soul and folk rock. The first song and the last are modern hymns (one written by Low, another by Tweedy), gracefully restrained prayers to the world. mavisstaples.com

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10. DOLLY VARDEN
FOR A WHILE

A family album in musical form, with Steve Dawson’s memories filling each page like tantalizing old snapshots. This is the sound of a songwriter and a band at midlife, contemplating their past, present and future, and transforming it into beguiling ballads. dollyvarden.com

 HONORABLE MENTIONS

Molly Drake — Molly Drake
Yo La Tengo — Fade
Kelley Stoltz — Double Exposure
Veronica Falls — Waiting for Something to Happen
Laura Mvula — Sing to the Moon
Richard Thompson — Electric
Heavy Times — Fix It Alone
Cate Le Bon — Mug Museum
Low — The Invisible Way
Laura Marling — Once I Was an Eagle
Charles Bradley — Victim of Love
Waxahatchee — Cerulean Salt
Rose Windows — The Sun Dogs
Twin Peaks — Sunken
I Was A King — You Love It Here
Sam Phillips — Push Any Button
The Sadies — Internal Sounds
David Lang — Death Speaks
Laura Veirs — Warp and Weft
Superchunk — I Hate Music
The Cairo Gang — Tiny Rebels
Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood — Black Pudding
Cave — Threace
Patty Griffin — American Kid
My Bloody Valentine — m b v
The Handsome Family — Wilderness
The Liminanas — Costa Blanca
The National — Trouble Will Find Me
Arcade Fire — Reflektor
Chelsea Wolfe — Pain Is Beauty
Disappears — Era
Midlake — Antiphon
Thee Oh Sees — Floating Coffin
Various Artists — Good God! Apocryphal Hymns
Pelican — Forever Becoming
Rokia Traoré — Beautiful Africa
Black Bug — Reflecting the Light
Kronos Quartet/Bryce Dessner — Aheym
Phosphorescent — Muchacho
Shocked Minds — Shocked Minds
Ensemble Signal — Shelter
Alvin Lucier/Janacek Philarmonic Orchestra — Orchestral Works
Cass McCombs — Big Wheel and Others
Dobrinka Tabakova — String Paths
Frank Rosaly — Cicada Music
Savages — Silence Yourself
Bonnie “Prince” Billy — Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Kurt Vile — Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Nadia Sirota — Baroque
Jacco Gardner — Cabinet of Curiosities
Foxygen — We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
Guided By Voices — English Little League
Mind Spiders — Inhumanistic
Ty Segall — Sleeper
Dumpster Babies — Dumpster Babies
Faun Fables — A Table Forgotten

Bill Callahan at Alhambra Palace

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Bill Callahan returned to Chicago on Monday for his second concert of the year in this city. Both of his 2013 Chicago concerts, presented by Land and Sea Dept., have been at unconventional venues. In May, he performed at Garfield Park Conservatory. This time, he played at Alhambra Palace, a cavernous Middle Eastern restaurant on Randolph Street with ornate decor, including lush red curtains. The stage is flanked by a couple of Lamassu.

There’s little, if anything, Middle Eastern about Callahan’s music, and the grandiose surroundings created a strange contrast with Callahan’s laconic personality. And yet, even though Callahan’s songs can seem modest and simple on first listen, they’re often miniature epics — and ornate in their own peculiar way.

The last time Callahan was in Chicago, he didn’t play any new songs, despite the fact that he was on the verge of releasing a new album, Dream Riverthe follow-up to his 2011 masterpiece ApocalypseIt’s another beautiful and compellingly odd collection of songs from Callahan; as the title indicates, there’s a drifting, dreamlike atmosphere this time. (The new record has prompted some great press coverage, including this feature story by Spin.)

Callahan played every song from the new album during his Alhambra Palace show. The live arrangements didn’t include any of that jazzy flute from the studio versions. The emphasis shifted more toward Matt Kinsey’s guitar riffs, fills and solos. (The band also included bassist Jamie Zuverza and drummer Adam Jones as well as Kinsey, a member of the Austin roots-rock band Lil’ Cap’n Travis.) As he did on Callahan’s Apocalypse songs, Kinsey plays an invaluable role fleshing out this music. Kinsey’s ever-changing guitar melodies engage in a duet with Callahan’s vocals. There was nothing flashy — no rock-star drama — about the way Kinsey sat in his chair on Monday night, but if you played close attention to the way he was bending those strings, you could see and hear just what a remarkable performance it was.

Callahan isn’t flashy, either. As you can see from my photographs, he sings close to the microphone, rarely opening his mouth very wide. He raises his eyebrows with a quizzical look, squeezes his eyes shut with a flash of emotion, or turns his mouth down in a somewhat comical expression.

Callahan didn’t speak a whole lot in between songs, other than a few gracious comments, thanking the audience of listening. When someone in the crowd shouted out, “That song kicks ass!” (after he played “Seagull,” from the new album), Callahan replied: “There’s a merchandise table out there somewhere. If you want your ass kicked.”

SET LIST: The Sing / Javelin Unlanding / Spring / One Fine Morning / Too Many Birds / Ride My Arrow / Seagull / Drover / Summer Painter / Please Send Someone to Love Me (Percy Mayfield cover) / America / Winter Road / Small Plane

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The opening act was Circuit Des Yeux, aka singer-songwriter Haley Fohr, whose set built from droning folk songs to ear-shattering primal screams.

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Bill Callahan at Garfield Park Conservatory

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Bill Callahan’s been quiet lately, revealing no sign yet of a follow-up to his 2011 masterpiece Apocalypse. The beguilingly odd singer-songwriter made a welcome return to Chicago on Monday (May 6), playing at an unusual venue — the Garfield Park Conservatory — in a concert booked by Land and Sea Dept., which featured tap dancer Flat Foot as the opening act. As Callahan took the stage and looked out at the sold-out venue filled with about 400 fans, Callahan laconically remarked, “There’s a lot of people here. You look like trees.” And then, appropriately enough, he began with a song about trees. “There’s sap in the trees if you tap ’em,” he sang, beginning the concert with “Sycamore,” from his 2007 album Woke on a Whaleheart.

Callahan was in top form, stretching out his songs for emphasis at key moments, turning around phrases from his lyrics like incantations coming to him in a fever. Although the music was a far cry from Van Morrison’s, Callahan and the two players accompanying him on Monday achieved a mystic flow that occasionally evoked Morrison’s famous musical prayers. Guitarist Matt Kinsey, who played on Apocalypse and toured with Callahan in 2011, offered a sort of call-and-response to Callahan’s vocals, reeling off tiny guitar solos squeezed between the lyrics. There was no drummer this time, just Kinsey and bassist Jaime Zuverza. As a result, much of the music was wonderfully rubato (“intentionally and temporarily deviating from a strict tempo”).

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Callahan was more talkative than he has been at the previous concerts I’ve seen, showing a dry sense of humor. When he asked for more vocals in his monitor, a fan called out that the mix sounded great. Callahan replied, “It sounds different up here. Just so you know. Two different worlds. Trying to merge them into one.”

Callahan — who is known for his understated stage presence — later remarked: “A security guard asked me tonight if there’d be any Justin Bieber action. I’m doing my part. The rest is up to you.”

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Callahan played one song from his early years when he recorded under the name (Smog), “Our Anniversary” from the 2003 album Supper, saying that he’s surprised people still want to hear him play it, but that he’ll keep playing it as long as fans request it.

He included two covers in his set: Percy Mayfield’s 1950 soul classic “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and Jim Jackson’s 1928 blues song “Old Dog Blue.” As he sang that old tune about a dog, a cat scampered along a nearby wall into the conservatory’s Horticulture Hall. In one quiet — practically silent — moment in between songs, Callahan noted the sound of a passing L train.

And after the main set finished and Callahan’s fans responded with enthusiastic applause, Callahan returned to the stage with his band and began strumming the chords to his 2011 song “Riding for the Feeling.” But before singing, he talked over the music for a bit, speculating on what life was like in 1908, when the Garfield Park Conservatory opened. He imagined how early people had to wake up for work back then. “Right after they got off stage, they got up … and were grinding their wheat for their breakfast,” he said — and then finally began singing lyrics that felt like the perfect way to end the night: “It’s never easy to say goodbye/To the faces/So rarely do we see another one/So close and so long…”

SET LIST: Sycamore / Universal Applicant / The Wind and the Dove / Drover / Please Send Me Someone to Love / Baby’s Breath / One Fine Morning / Old Blue / Our Anniversary/ Too Many Birds / ENCORE: Riding for the Feeling

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Bill Callahan at Brilliant Corners

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Callahan’s lyrics are sometimes puzzling, inviting listeners to impose their own meanings. During one of the quirkiest songs on the new record, the anti-anthemic anthem “America!,” Callahan slipped into a bit of “Amazing Grace.” Callahan’s singing was understated, but he conveyed a great deal of melody in a few notes.





Neal Morgan

Matt Kinsey

Bill Callahan at the Hideout


Singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, who used to call himself Smog, played two solo shows Saturday night (April 10) at the Hideout in Chicago, with proceeds going to the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, a group that helps sexually abused children. Once again, the Hideout deserves praise for hosting interesting and entertaining events that also help out a good cause.

Callahan has a low-key personality onstage, matching the understated quality of his half-spoken baritone vocals. He did not speak much in between his songs, but there was no need — these songs beautifully spoke for themselves. He had a way of wincing a bit as he sang or played guitar that seemed to reveal glimpses of the emotions that went into writing them, even as he maintained a calm expression. As New York Times critic Ben Ratliff pointed out last week in a review of Callahan’s new live CD Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, Callahan’s singing has been great lately, relaxed and subtle.

He played songs that he recorded under the old Smog moniker as well as tracks from his recent Bill Callahan albums, including “Too Many Birds,” “Say Valley Maker,” “Sycamore” and “Rock Bottom Riser.” The crowd was exceptionally quiet throughout the performance, paying close attention to Callahan’s performance, but then the applause was quite loud and enthusiastic calling out Callahan for an encore, which he obligingly provided, playing “Let Me See the Colts.”
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The opening act was Chicago artist Axis:Sova (a.k.a. Brett Sova, who also plays in the band Mass Shivers). He played solo electric guitar, including some hard-rock-style soloing and a few songs with vocals, which were more intriguing when they sounded less like hard rock.

See my photos of Bill Callahan and Axis:Sova.