In grunge terms Lanegan is probably best known as the lead singer of Screaming Trees, a band that brought a warm-toned, psychedelic-inflected spin to the burgeoning early 90s Seattle scene. Even as Screaming Trees were signing to a major, however, he was releasing his first solo album, 1990’s The Winding Sheet,* and since then the prolific Lanegan has put out a further eight solo albums, along with full-length collaborations with Isobel Campbell (three memorable albums), Soulsavers (two albums) and Duke Garwood (just the one, to date), and individual tracks with The Twilight Singers, UNKLE, Warpaint, Earth and of course Mad Season.** Oh, and he’s also been on-and-off in Queens of the Stone Age since Screaming Trees officially split up in 2000.
Reflecting the recent critical acclaim he has been receiving, the venue was packed. Mark Lanegan Band was the latest in a succession of great gigs I’ve seen at the Electric Ballroom, which over the years has proved to be a reliable gig venue for me, with both great sound and great vibe.*** I’ve had the good fortune to see there, among others, Kings X, Thrice and, errr … Megadeth (\m/).
Lanegan has a compelling presence onstage, immobile at his mic stand, one set of skeletal fingers gripping the mic, his minimal movement drawing you into his melancholy stories. Before the gig, Roberto mentioned that he’d seen Lanegan perform an acoustic set back in Milan. I can imagine that an acoustic performance would give full rein to the expression in his rich, battle-scarred baritone, but tonight the warm tone of his backing band complemented his gravelly vocals perfectly.****
The set featured mostly songs from Lanegan’s most recent solo albums, Phantom Radio and Blues Funeral, which have taken the singer in a distinctive direction, adroitly achieving the challenging feat of smoothly blending his blues roots with synths and electronica, at times even throwing in a hint of disco; on one track (I think from Phantom Radio, which shamefully I don’t yet have) there was of all things a nod in the rhythm to that disco classic by Rod Stewart, ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’. This contrasted with ‘One-Way Street’ from 2001’s Field Songs, which more overtly reflected the Tom Waits influence in his songwriting.
Musically, Lanegan may these days draw from a broader palette, but lyrically his themes remain weightily familiar: death, sin, redemption, desolation, lost love. Highlights for me included opener ‘The Gravedigger’s Song’, whose pulsing, insistent rhythm ably set up the show, and ‘Harborview Hospital’, with its gently hypnotic, sweetly reflective melodies.
‘Harborview Hospital’ live, Belgrade, 26 February 2015.
I’d initially assumed that Lanegan’s guitarist on the night was Alain Johannes, his long-term collaborator and producer, but I later found out that it was someone called Jeff Fielder. (Jack Irons, formerly of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam, drummed on his recent albums, but nor was he behind the kit for this tour.) Fielder created some fluid, rich-toned guitar lines, always understated and well-phrased, drawing the blues out of the music.
Support came from Duke Garwood. (I think there was another band before him, but we missed them if there was.) Garwood cuts a striking figure onstage, stiff-backed, bearded and proudly defiant; his gruff, husky, impenetrable vocals complementing the feedback-soaked blues licks he coaxed out of his open-body electric guitar. Garwood is British, astonishing considering how rooted in the blues his music sounds;***** weirdly, in his mannerisms he reminded me of Reverend Jim from Taxi (but with beard). Garwood also joined Lanegan on the encore for ‘I Am the Wolf’.
Setlist: The Gravedigger’s Song, Harvest Home, No Bells on Sunday, Grey Goes Black, Hit the City, One-Way Street, Dry Iced, Ode to Sad Disco, Riot in My House, Floor of the Ocean, Torn Red Heart, Harborview Hospital, Black Rose Way, Death Trip to Tulsa, Methamphetamine Blues, I Am the Wolf, The Killing Season
* The Winding Sheet includes a cover of Leadbelly, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, later also covered by Nirvana for their iconic Unplugged set, with an unforgettable vocal performance from Kurt Cobain.
** Plus doubtless others!
*** If not great beer. Ugh. Expensive ugh even.
**** Told myself I wouldn’t use the adjective gravelly to describe his vocals, but it’s impossible to avoid it. If you look up gravelly in the dictionary, there’ll be a photo of Lanegan there. If not, it’s a rubbish dictionary.
***** He is from South London, however, so perhaps that explains why the blues has seeped in to his very core.