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Bill Callahan, the core of the California-based Smog was the first person I’ve ever seen who looks like the music he makes. As he appeared motionless and almost invisible on stage, I had to squint in order to see the rather ordinary-looking man checking the knobs of his guitar amp. His understated nature reflected exactly what his band is about: basic-chord guitar, violin (on half the songs), and irregular drum beats, with harsh, biting lyrics of a personal nature. Smog is the release of teen angst Callahan never seemed to grow out of, years scarred with depression and hard luck. I’m not really trying to psychoanalyze too much, but I do believe some of the best music can come out of extremely dismal and subversive conditions.
Silence, cynicism, pain, and loss are all topics Callahan seems to know quite well as he sang out lyrics like “I bet when I die, you’ll find a stone in my gut,” “I’m gonna be drunk, so drunk, at your wedding,” and, probably the most self-debasing, “When she faked it, it was the most beautiful of all.” Though on record Smog shows a bit of humor, tonight those songs were left out for the drearier, stick-in-the-mud types. About half the songs were from Julius Caeser, Smog’s latest album on Chicago’s Drag City. “Strawberry Rash” and “37 Pushups” weren’t the same as the recorded versions, but I like it when a band doesn’t feel restricted to perform exactly what’s on their record. The other half of the songs were unfamiliar, but good nonetheless. When Smog ended its set earlier than the crowd anticipated, it was met with four minutes of continuous applause (try clapping for that amount; it’s a pretty long time) from the thirty or so people there. The band came back on for a two-song encore, concluding with the noisy “When the Power Goes Out.”
After the show I spoke briefly with Callahan, who expressed his surprise over the positive response. He mentioned that he never plays encores because, quite frankly, he never gets asked.
Opening the show was the Karl Hendricks Trio, a loud, gritty pop band from Pittsburgh. They had quirky song titles (“Girls Who Like Cigarettes” was one, I think) and a stripped-down sound that was by no means incomplete. The band greatly pleased the local crowd, who walked around for the remainder of the night with Karl Hendricks Trio records under their arms.
This concert was not one where I left thinking “Man, that band totally rocked!” but rather “What the heck was that all about?” Smog is not a band that will blow out the speakers of your stereo system. It may be a little depressing for some, but Smog’s music is the end result of dealing with intense and confusing emotions, and to witness these expressions is very impressive.