LIVE: Mark Lanegan – Limelight, Belfast

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The solitary figure of Lanegan’s bandmate and former conservatoire jazz bassist Frederic “Lyenn” Jacques opened the show in Belfast on Friday night.

With only a vintage Ibanez ‘Les Paul’ for company, he delivered a mesmerising set of pared down numbers with a voice sounding two-parts Jeff Buckley (intense and fragile) and one-part Jack White (yelping bluesman) all underpinned by a powerful, centred confidence.

All in black and looking not unlike a young James Taylor, Lyenn appeared to have been plucked from some kind of new wave French film (minus the shades and the Gauloises). His songs exude a brooding melancholy but sometimes jerk into menacing spasms of vocal experimentation that spiral into higher registers like chaotic sax lines. Flashes of melodic ornamentation augment the steady tenor of otherwise sparse arrangements no doubt designed to provide ample space for the voice to breathe in the mix and thusly penetrate the listener. The vocal melodies sometimes have a folky, modal quality like the sound of a haunted minstrel. Lyenn’s stillness on stage and emotional intensity created a tractor beam for attention (unlike Lanegan’s) that left the initially cynical audience quite transfixed: not easy these days with the one-man-and-his-guitar format.

SZ1Following Lyenn, Sean Wheeler (Throw Rag) and Zander Schloss (Circle Jerks, Joe Strummer) took to the stage with their brand of croaky Americana. Sean Wheeler, all prison tattoos and Tom Waits attitude, hollered with gumption over Zander’s pumping twelve-string acoustic and the pair harmonised the hell out of a yearning, booze-soaked and bawdy clatter of songs. Wheeler’s voice goes from thick n’ smoky with gravel and whisky (in the fine American tradition) to a tremulous quiver when backing his comrade. Wheeler sat out midset while the wildly hairy Zander used his Greek Bazouki to good effect: the cleverly crafted “Song about Songs” in particular showcasing his earnest, folky voice and unpretentious delivery.  These guys play songs that can be digested in situ, with proper choruses and memorable images. Not least the raucous “Good Pussy” (it’s just like Heroin) and the wonderfully plaintive “Catch Me If I Fall” which captures a down-home country bluegrass sound that whiffs of the American heartland (wherever that is).

ML2ML3And so to Lanegan. Dark Mark’s Easter Island jawline and heroin-chic cheekbones remain though his classic seattle chinstrip beard is now greying. Wolfishly grizzled and mostly inanimate from the neck down, the former Screaming Trees frontman and QOTSA collaborator gave a low-key performance with his band seemingly having a much better time than him (not difficult). Guitarist Jeff Fielder swayed and bounced around generating the spine of the sound with his devil-horned Gibson SG and Lyenn returned for bass duties (lurking invisibly at the back). The sound was completed with addition of drums and keys/textures which resulted in the five-piece creating a not big, but more muffled sound which to my ears didn’t really ever transcend the sum of its parts and drowned out the key instrument. Lanegan’s hallowed pipes resonate at lower frequencies than the average humanoid and benefit from an uncluttered setting to properly exploit their sound – perhaps the sound man should have exposed them more in the mix.

Tonight’s material leant heavily on his post-Bubblegum output which has become more electronic and experimental with each album. They included a few staples like the beautifully rambling blues-folk of “One Way Street” and the obligatory assault of “Methamphetamine Blues”. Some of the newer Phantom Radio tracks utilise Lanegan’s higher register which does ease the torpor of his funereal rumblings somewhat, but the highlight for me was the middle set journey into the E.P. “No Bells on Sunday” in which the arrangements receded allowing the lead vocals more space to stretch out ML4assert their prominence.

Channelling the 80s electronica vibe works for Lanegan and it is the rockier numbers, disappointingly, that seemed wanting. Perhaps the cult status he enjoys will never allow his solo work to transcend his epic sideman roles, his dial-a-baritone consistency seems always to lift the other vocalist by their juxtaposition to him, leaving his own dusty rasp languishing as a luxuriant backdrop. To his credit, Mark Lanegan is nobody’s dancing monkey, but his lack of irony and seeming refusal to enjoy his own tunes tonight came off as an unaffected and rather charmless indifference. Maybe he’s smiling on the inside. Paul Evans, GiggingNI.com