(Smog) at Iota, Arlington, VA, Thursday 15 April 2004
Bill Callahan has recorded and performed under the name Smog since the early 1990s, but recently he put the name in parentheses, as if (Smog) were just an afterthought to which little attention should be paid. On Thursday night at Iota, he seemed almost uninterested in performing: He barely moved, rarely spoke, and had neither a backing band nor an opening act, making the performance seem a bit impromptu.
Callahan played one song right after the next, strumming simple chords on his guitar while singing in a mature baritone that seemed out of sync with his boyish face. Although he stood still, the muscles on his face got a workout as he furrowed his brow, raised one eyebrow at a time, sang out of the corner of his mouth and contorted his face as if entertaining a baby.
His material ranged from the heartbroken (on "Your New Friend," he sang, "This has been going on every night since that week I left town / It really makes me think I should've stuck around") to the bizarre ("Flying around the houses at night, flying alone . . . I was a teenage spaceship") to a cover of the traditional tune "In the Pines," which has been appropriated by artists from Leadbelly to Dolly Parton, and most famously adapted by Nirvana into "Where Did You Sleep Last Night."
Callahan's stoic performance gave his songs a dryness that a smile would have ruined. He stopped after a dozen and said, "That was my set as I planned it, and I'll play one or two more, if you want." After a cacophony of requests, he deadpanned, "That's all stuff I haven't been practicing." He gave the audience a choice between two songs, deliberated over them too long, and ended up playing both anyway.
-- Catherine P. Lewis