If we haven’t already been spoilt enough in 2021 with new music, Bill Callahan and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Will Oldham) draw the curtain on a fine year in new releases with Blind Date Party.
During the harshest period of lockdown and in the absence of gigs, Callahan and Oldham knocked heads and locked horns with Chicago indie yardstick, Drag City, drafting in the label’s artists to play the songs they loved.
Featuring an all star cast of Drag City luminaries, AZITA, Matt Sweeney, Alasdair Roberts, Matt Kinsey, Sean O’Hagan, Bill MacKay, George Xylouris, Dead Rider, David Pajo, Mick Turner, Meg Baird, Ty Segall, Emmett Kelly, Cory Hanson, Six Organs of Admittance, David Grubbs, Cassie Berman, Cooper Crain and Sir Richard Bishop, the Blind Date Party took place in the autumn and winter of 20/21.
Callahan and Oldham would sing a song by someone they loved, with each song cut by the aforementioned artists (who were paired together with no say in the matter – hence the blind date). The final versions were then sent to Callahan and Oldham to add the finishing touches.
The results pretty much speak for themselves. Callahan’s heart melting baritone together with Oldham’s saccharine melodies is a thing we’ve all wanted to see and hear over an extended period for some time now. While these songs are covers, so good, it’s like the pair deliver them as if they were their own (Lou Reed’s Country Garden, featuring Xylouris, actually sounds like a twisted B-side to The Velvet Underground’s Heroin!).
It all starts with the gentle balladry and sunny beach riffs of Cat Stevens’ Blackness of the Night. Featuring AZITA, you can almost taste the cocktails poolside, but make no mistake; West Palm Beach this is not.
Then there’s the Hank Williams Jr. cover of O.D.’d in Denver. Featuring Matt Sweeney (whom Oldham collaborated with earlier this year on Superwolves), here we see Callahan and Oldham softening the edges of outlaw country. And in that same realm, on Callahan’s Our Anniversary, Dead Rider and Oldham give it the proper Neil Young treatment. A barn yard stomp that, ironically, proves to be one of Blind Date Party’s finest moments.
With Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues (featuring MacKay) and I’ve Been the One (featuring Baird), Callahan’s rich, rumbling voice cuts through you like a cold wind. Alongside Pajo, Oldham returns serve on Jerry Lee Walker’s I Love You So; so beautiful, it’s the kind of performance that should have couples queuing up to use it as their wedding song!
It wouldn’t be a Drag City love-in without Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny and Dirty Three / Mess Esque’s Mick Turner. Chasny lends a hand to Callahan who covers Oldham’s Arise Therefore, while Turner’s wonky synths dominate Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song. Sonically, these two songs are the outliers of the bunch and rightly so. Chasny, in particular, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Blind Date Party’s most captivating moment arrives with the Silver Jews’ cover, The Wild Kindness, which features David Berman’s partner and band mate, Cassie Berman.
Alongside Callahan and Oldham, David Berman underpinned the Drag City roster, making the label what it is today – one of the true greats in independent music. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the finest wordsmiths ever to derive from American shores, may he rest in peace.
Blind Date Party showcases two longstanding artists tossing the script and paying the ultimate homage to both independent music and touchstones of the past. With the songs Callahan and Oldham have written over the past three decades, it’s about time they let loose and have some fun (see Billie Eilish’s cover of Wish You Were Gay featuring Sean O’Hagan).
Festive listening? During the forthcoming holiday period, it’s essential to welcome Blind Date Party into your life.
Blind Date Party is out tomorrow via Drag City. Purchase here.