The late food writer and raconteur Anthony Bourdain featured Mark Lanegan in an episode of his program Parts Unknown shot in Lanegan’s native Seattle last year. Bourdain, who famously took rock n roll seriously, was a great fan of Lanegan. His voiceover began,“Mark Lanegan is to my mind one of the greatest living singer songwriters making music today”.
High praise indeed and he went on to say, “His songs and lyrics reflective of a long hard life, cut me right to the bone”. This is unsurprising given their shared history of addiction.
Mark Lanegan makes great music. His magnificent smokey baritone and the stories he tells are absolutely “the real thing”. He walks the talk, there is no posing here.
Lanegan has been incredibly prolific in an era where mainstream rock n rollers are lucky to release an album every three years. Touring Australia on the back of the album, Gargoyle, released by his eponymous band last year, he has also just recently put out his second album with Duke Garwood, called With Animals.
I first saw Mark Lanegan perform with his band Screaming Trees at the 1995 Big Day Out in Sydney. Along with Mudhoney and The Melvins, the Screaming Trees belonged to the second tier (in popularity stakes) of bands coming out of Seattle in the ‘90s after Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana and Alice in Chains.
They were heady days and Screaming Trees were at the peak of their popularity with the success of the album Sweet Oblivion that spawned the hits Nearly Lost You, which featured on The Singles Motion Pictured Soundtrack and Dollar Bill. Lanegan performed sitting in a wheelchair with a leg in plaster and swigged from a bottle of whiskey in between songs. It was cracking.
Since the demise of Screaming Trees, Lanegan has worked with Isobel Campbell, Duke Garwood, The Gutter Twins, Queens of the Stone Age and more, but for mine, it is his work with Mark Lanegan Band that stands out. Beginning with Bubblegum in 2004, the albums seem to get better. Unafraid to experiment with electronica, last year’s Gargoyle is almost playful (at times) by Lanegan standards.
A fair slice of last night’s set was made up of tunes from Lanegan’s early solo albums, before he began releasing music as “Mark Lanegan Band”. This might’ve been due to the fact that there was no drummer. The rhythm was produced by a drum machine triggered by guitar player Jeff Fielder, whose guitar sang as sweetly as Lanegan’s vocals. The band was completed by a female keyboard player, who alas is new to both me and Google apparently, but is very well known to Lanegan it seems, kissing him after their vocal duet on Come to Me from Bubblegum. She had big shoes to fill as the vocals on the record are provided by the one and only PJ Harvey, but she more than held her own.
The trio setup worked a treat as it allowed Lanegan’s vocals to soar, except for Gravedigger’s Song, which suffered from a lack of the rumbling bass line heard on the recorded version. The night began with the spine tingling, When Your Number Isn’t Up. A song consisting mostly of voice and piano, it tells the story of a man close to death in hospital, “waitin’ at this frozen border, so close you could hit it with a stone”.
A few covers appeared last night and a couple were among the best songs played, You Only Live Twice by Nancy Sinatra and the astonishingly good On Jesus’ Program, an O.V. Wright gospel number, Lanegan released on his 1999 album, I’ll Take Care of You.
In Halo of Ashes, a Screaming Trees tune, Fielder showed what a virtuoso player he really is. His licks were almost as impressive as Lanagen’s vocals. Other highlights were Morning Glory Wine from Bubblegum and the devastating I am the Wolf from the Phantom Radio album.
Image of Mark Lanegan via Facebook
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