How time flies when you’re having fun, eh? I’ve seen Mark Lanegan onstage in various guises in recent years whether it be with Soulsavers, Isobel Campbell, the Gutter Twins (as part of a band or just with partner-in-crime Greg Dulli) or just on his own with an acoustic guitar for company, in a host of buildings including a chapel, a cathedral and an Art-Deco seaside public artspace. Yet it’s been over seven years since he’s been through promoting his own new material under his own banner.
This is the first of four such new shows I’ll be taking in over the course of the next week or so, which seems like a bit of a muchness. And it probably is – the Thesaurus is certainly going to get something of a hammering/bashing/awful running gag treatment before next Tuesday’s behind me. Fact is, I’ll be pottering around the country meeting up with friends old and new who I met through a shared appreciation of Lanegan’s varied career, so as with previous multi-show visits, it’s an excuse to get out of the house and hang out with good friends, some of which I’ll be meeting for the first time in three dimensions. It’s rather strange that this first show I’m attending is in the same room as the last time he rolled into town with a full band under his own name back in 2004, perhaps it’s a fondness for the building (more than a couple of times in the intervening period, he’s been found in the cosier environs of the Academy 3 upstairs from here with other acts) as it can’t be due to a struggle to fill larger venues – Manchester has been very supportive of Lanegan’s varied works over the years, and his stock has certainly risen recently despite a mainstream press still unable to neatly place him.
First up tonight is Creature With the Atom Brain from Belgium, featuring Mark’s previous musical sparring partner and collaborator Aldo Struyf. With a new album just around the corner, it’s not surprising that much of their support slot was taken up with largely unfamiliar material (although recent free-to-download track Hit The Sky got an airing), with only The Color Of Sundown and the title track of their previous Transylvania album recognisable among the new stuff. It’s certainly an intriguing direction they are now heading in, becoming even more spacey than they already were and opening with quite an epic song featuring a huge instrumental midsection that reminded me of a controlled Ozric Tentacles. Thanks to Mark’s involvement on CWTAB’s last two albums, this is not a band wholly unfamiliar with tonight’s audience, and would certainly have won over those who hadn’t previously been aware.
It has to be said that one of the benefits of being the support act at a Mark Lanegan Show (Band or otherwise) is that you get all the lights to yourself. Where Creature With The Atom Brain were well-illuminated throughout their set, Mark Lanegan once more took to a stage bathed very sparsely in red, with his surrounding band slightly better off in blue. Launching straight into The Gravedigger’s Song, Mark and his band ploughed through a sterling seventeen-song set (plus another four as an encore) that contained much of his new Blues Funeral album, a few choice cuts from his previous Bubblegum outing, a quick jaunt round Field Songs and a nod back to previous employment. there may be a few rumblings that he didn’t stretch further back into his own archives further than his present and previous two albums (plus related EP), but in truth there probably wasn’t anywhere to put anything else in a quite sizeable set.
The Academy 2 is a strange venue, the sound isn’t subtle by any means, but this seemed to suit tonight’s band who decided early on that if it wasn’t going to be crystal clear, it was going to be bloody loud instead. The way the stage is set out as well (unadorned high black walls, and a deep but quite narrow floorspace that scrunches the band up a bit into something resembling a circle rather than drums behind a line of people) lends itself to a loose, “Old Grey Whistle Test” atmosphere that everyone seemed to enjoy, turning Alain Johannes’ tightly-controlled production into a series of jams where everyone gets to add their own character to the songs while sticking to a rigid framework. This worked best during a Wedding Dress that was a lot jazzier than previous incarnations, and an incredible, unusual Fix that came across more like a 1970s Rolling Stones jam than the grand eulogy it previously was. And no matter how fluffy the sound occasionally got, the PA was no match for Mark’s voice – unleashed as if it was the last show of the tour, his voice was clear and impassioned throughout, hitting every note and moving every spirit in the room.
Mark’s new material spread across the set gives a colour and diversity that is genuinely surprising – not that previous shows and previous incarnations weren’t fun, but going from Resurrection Song to Gray Goes Black to St Louis Elegy to Crawlspace (btw: always fantastic to hear the Screaming Trees revisited, even nicer to hear one off the ‘new’ album. I still live in hope of one day hearing Grey Diamond Desert though) to Bleeding Muddy Water to Quiver Syndrome to… oh, you get the picture. The song choice and order is so perfectly balanced throughout the near two-hour running time that I couldn’t imagine anyone coming away from tonight’s show grumbling that something or other didn’t get played.
Highlight for me was Ode To Sad Disco, a song that has raised a few eyebrows on the record but is pretty much peerless onstage, almost getting the enthusiastic but not hugely mobile Mancunian crowd to shake heads and shoulders – I suppose a lot here were confused at the fact that the nice Mr Lanegan has stopped being all quiet and has started to make noisy records again…
Will stop now as I’ve got another three of these to get through and don’t want to run out of stuff on my first go. As a first night out, the next three dates on my itinerary have a LOT to live up to…
The Gravedigger’s Song
Sleep With Me
Hit the City
Gray Goes Black
St Louis Elegy
Bleeding Muddy Water
One Hundred Days
Creeping Coastline of Lights
Riot in My House
Ode To Sad Disco
Wish You Well
When Your Number Isn’t Up
One Way Street