Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Daniel Lanois Live at the Basement

The Basement, Sydney

Daniel Lanois is a strange kettle of fish. You wouldn’t call his voice magic, but there’s a lot going on in his mind and how it’s tuned. Does it bear repeating he is best known as a producer, mentored by Brian Eno, crucial to career-changing work from U2, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris? You can hear that tonight in the songs: the rotating surge and lift-off of U2, the stark night-time lope and regretful swing of Dylan: it fogs your thoughts with who has influenced who.

Initially, though, things are solid rather than inspired. The sound is also oddly dense for such a master of space and rooms. Third song in it shifts. Lanois starts talking about growing up in Canada, about indigenous people in Australia and back home. He lived close by the Six Nations Reservation and played in a bar there: “I would look into the sunken eyes of my compadres and imagine what it was like to dream of other possibilities.” Still Water begins. In its refrain of “sad eyes, sad eyes” Lanois finds a voice inside him like sweet blotting paper.

Time again Lanois hits these moments: On Do or Die, with its ringing guitars and war drum patterns that sound like Native American ghosts, then something more modern and military, before the whole song takes off like an eagle and dissolves in a ripple of furious electric notes that suggest classic Neil Young. On Cool, with its teenage strut and spacey guitar and submarine beat that seems to grow older as the song moves along, till your out on some lost highway somewhere between Dorothy’s Kansas, Barney Kessel’s jazz guitar modes and Paris, Texas. Or maybe that was just the flashing lights of a cold Ontario night passing me by?

He tells a story about his father being a fiddle player, then strays into a new song: “I dunno what is life and what is shadow”. Often the band is singing along with him and it feels less like a solo show than a group effort, until you see how intense Lanois gets inside his guitar, pushing at the band and pushing at himself even harder.

Jolie Louise, sung in Quebecoise French nods again to Lanois’ roots. It could be a joke, a lumberjack love song from a cartoon, but he pulls it off. There are more songs in French, some fine steel guitar instrumentals, and songs that are just okay. Lanois keeps going for something big anyway, as if determination and belief will get him there and sometimes it does. I'm amazed a how historical he is: Quebecoise to the bone, teenage with icy landscapes and dark-eyed fires, adult with where he came from and the uncertainty of where he might be going. Great with what he falls short of achieving - all the while he goes all out to try and get there.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in Drum Media, Sydney 14.04.06

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