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Bill Callahan tours on an album meant to help us move past a backward reality

Right before COVID-19 hit, Bill Callahan was on a roll. After enduring five years of writer’s block, he’d made two strong albums infused with a newfound positivity that reflected the pleasure he took in family life. His lockdown years weren’t even so bad. In a recent interview with online publication Loud and Quiet, he described how domesticity insulated him from the worst of the pandemic—and how a series of remotely recorded cover tunes he made with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and a host of Drag City labelmates kept him engaged with music throughout the long months when the concert industry was shut down. Nevertheless, he picked up on the country’s dystopian mood, and on his latest LP, YTI⅃AƎЯ, he confronts it. You can feel ripples of that darkness in “Bowevil,” which invokes memories of an earlier plague that scourged Callahan’s home state of Texas. And the gallows humor he used to flex when he performed as Smog reappears on “Everyway,” in which shipwrecked sailors who try to keep warm by putting their hands into a dead animal’s guts comfort themselves by observing, “At least we’re all in this horse together.” But while Smog songs simply described alienation, Callahan’s new work consciously tries to turn the bleakness of reality around. In “Natural Information,” for example, he finds an antidote to data bombardment in strolls with his baby daughter, and the tune drives the point home with a jubilant brass arrangement. Reports from Callahan’s west-coast shows last fall suggest that the improvisational chops of his band—which includes longtime guitarist Matt Kinsey, Dirty Three drummer Jim White, and Chicago-based tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi—will induce some positive vibrations of their own.

Bill Callahan Pascal Kerong’A opens. Mon 3/6, 8 PM, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $35-$45, 17+

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