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Smog, the Enigma 

Bill Callahan finds clarity in the spaces between

We gather here tonight, Oct. 4, at the Visulite Theatre, to pay our final respects to Smog, the long-running nom de guerre of Bill Callahan. Touring one last time behind 2005's A River Ain't Too Much to Love, Callahan plans to enter the studio in mid-November to record his 13th full-length since 1990, the first disc without his Smog alias.

"At this point it will be the death of Smog," Callahan writes via e-mail. "It's going to be unlike anything I've ever done."

Whether Callahan sticks to his decision, only time will tell; a few years ago he added parentheses to Smog -- (Smog) -- in an effort to separate band from man, then dropped the idea. Regardless, Smog's third appearance in Charlotte in three years -- and possibly the last -- suggests we cover our asses and celebrate the history of Smog and Callahan, one of the most criminally under-recognized songwriters of the last 15 years.

"There's a lesson here plain to see/There's no truth in you/There's no truth in me/The truth is in between" -- "Truth Serum," Supper (2003)

It was the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (569-475 B.C.) who said "music is the harmonization of opposites." No idea if Pythagoras was a vinyl junkie or an iTunes guy, but he couldn't have found a more fertile narrative Petri dish than Smog. Callahan's songs are enigmatic by design, thriving on contradictions. This gives his aphorism-rich narratives an elemental pull missing from a musical world over-run by black-or-white banalities. Smog songs can peel the skin from the toughest hides and expose the raw mess of hopes, fears, pain, joy and alienation that comprise our lives.

Such honest fare can make Callahan's observations uncomfortably voyeuristic, as though he's looking at the world -- and us -- with the detached eye of a clinical anthropologist. Listening to Smog, you tend to get the feeling that somebody's naked -- whether it's you or him seems to be the only question. This combination of confessional participant and neutral observer lets Callahan adopt an array of narrative personas, creating mystery at every turn. Is he the cold-hearted lady-killer of Red Apple Falls' (1996) "I Was a Stranger" or the heartbroken romantic of "Cold Blooded Old Times" from 1997's Knock Knock? Is he the resigned ironist who sang "Alone in my room I feel like such a part of the community" on "Ex-Con" (Red Apple Falls), or the cautious optimist who sang, "No matter how far wrong you've gone/You can always turnaround" on "I'm New Here" from A River ... ?

The Callahanian answer is, of course, all of the above.

Smog's music also reveals a wide variety of idiosyncratic musical guises, all delivered in Callahan's unmistakable deadpan baritone: country-inflected laments, hushed minor-key piano ballads, chugging VU-like rockers, twisted pop, children's choir-powered choruses and trance-inducing dirges.

But it's the stories that stand out. Smog's tales unfurl in fecund metaphors and unforgettable imagery, giving them the visual wallop of short films and the narrative punch of Carver's short stories. So it comes as little surprise that two of Callahan's songwriting influences come from vastly different arenas: mid-20th century journalist A.J. Liebling and country yarn-spinner Tom T. Hall.

"I like the way Liebling tells a story without seeming to tell a story," Callahan's e-mail continues. "All of his boxing essays are about what he drank at the bar afterwards and so on. Tom T. Hall just holds court in your brain, pulls up a lawn chair and holds court."

"With every mile/Another piece of me peels off/And whips down the road." -- "I Could Drive Forever," Knock Knock

The way Callahan tells it, he chose the name Smog after a six-week stint on an ocean freighter in 1987; when he returned to his home port of Baltimore, he was struck by the smog lingering over the city. "I live in smog," he thought, and the concept stuck.

It's fitting that a voyage inspired Callahan's choice of a band name, and he says that in the aftermath he was "like a caged animal set free." The migratory Callahan has since called Georgia, South Carolina, Sacramento, San Francisco, Chicago and, for the past few years, Austin, Texas, home. But though the road may have inspired him initially, that's not the case anymore.

"I used to get in a car and the melodies and words would come to me like billboards," Callahan writes in his e-mail. "But no more. I'm more of a rooted thing now, like a plant that grows. But I think the peripatetic nature of humans is rooted deep, too."

"We can continually sink into each other/Just deep enough to rip out a bit more flesh when we move away." -- "Blood Red Bird," Red Apple Falls

Greed, war, violence, and death are also grist for Callahan's writing mill, but matters of the heart are his music strikes most true. His knack for unflinchingly honest portrayals of love can make even fellow Drag City label mate and horn-dog Will Oldham seem reserved. On 1995's Wild Love, Callahan chronicles the heated passion at the start of an affair on "You Moved In." He captures the sexes' inability to communicate on "Back in School" from the 1996 EP Kicking A Couple Around, singing "I'm trying to learn your language/It's like a fly learning how to bark." On "Strayed" from 2000's Dongs of Sevotion, he confesses that "I have loved in haste/I've been an alley cat and a bumblebee," but on "Our Anniversary" from Supper, he paints a portrait of a mature relationship that, for all its warts, remains worth pursuing: "Let us thrive, let us thrive/Just like the weeds/We curse sometimes."

It was someone I cared for deeply that turned me on to Smog via a cassette copy of Wild Love -- regrettably, things fizzled into rancor and a slow fade-to-black. The last I heard, she lives in Portland, Ore. I sometimes wish I could thank her for the many musical gifts she made me, but all that's left now is the music, and that's probably how it ought to be. I like to think Bill Callahan would understand.

Smog plays the Visulite Theatre at 9pm; Oct. 4; Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 day of the show; www.visulite.com

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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