Live at The Sage, Gateshead
There's something a little unnerving about walking into a sparsely filled room of civilized gig goers, a few minutes late, when the band on stage are singing acapella. Tonight I was the latecomer and the duo onstage were Cath and Phil Tyler, playing some Bob Harris endorsed trad folk/Americana that I usually avoid, but on this occasion there were numerous glimmers of hope to be found. The moments where Phil got his banjo out were particularly pleasing especially in the Sage's wonderful Hall 2 where every single string scrape and lip smack is heard with unblemished clarity. There's a bit of mumbled banter which seemed like it should have been funny but I couldn't understand a word (despite the aforementioned acoustics), Cath and Phil and the assembled audience seemed to be having fun though. "Wether's Skin" was my personal highlight, with a vocal that pulses with rhythm foregoing any need for percussion, a low key harmony and simple guitar backing it nicely captured the crowd's (and this folk-skeptic's) approval. As Bill Callahan announces from the stage, this may well be the first time he's played in the area (using the word "area" carefully so as not to offend residents on either side of the Tyne) as Smog (which always seemed like more of a solo project) or under his own name (which is weirdly more like a finely tuned four piece). Opening with "The Sing", his uncompromising trademark baritone vibrates right through you, finely backed by sparse punctuated electric guitar, bass and drums courtesy of Matt Kinsey, Jamie Zuverza and Adam Jones respectively. At first Callahan strikes you as a man of great seriousness, but gradually throughout the night the moments of wry humor seep in, both in the lyrics and the infrequent between song "bantz". He draws mainly from his most recent brace of superb albums - 2011's Apocalypse and last years Dream River. "Drover" is an early treat with its wild western themes and an extra cathartic conclusion, "Spring" sounds uncharacteristically sprightly (dare I say "rocking"?) and "One Fine Morning" deftly mixes atmospheric feedback with moody harmonica and deservedly gets an elongated rapturous response from the audience. There's also room for "Rock Bottom Riser", "America", Javelin Unlanding" and "Seagull" in a filler-free set that seems much shorter than its 90 minutes run-time, mores the pity. For the Smog fans in the crowd, we get the classic "Dress Sexy at My Funeral" which, even after all these years can't help but put a smile on your face, and a surprise rendition of "Let Me See The Colts" as a fitting finale. With 3 of the players seated, minimal chat or even movement on stage and no encore, this could be described as a no thrills performance...if it wasn't so thoroughly thrilling.