All words + photos: Kara Capelli
Mark Lanegan is the badass grunge-rocker version of the little engine that could, coming up on a three decade music career. He’s produced solo albums even throughout his time as the lead vocalist of grunge original Screaming Trees, as a member of Queens of the Stone Age, and during his involvement in countless other collaborations and projects. Those musical endeavors, as well as his solo career, have made him a rock icon in his own right, mostly because of his legendary voice; yet, he’s never made it to rock superstardom. Nonetheless, Lanegan is still chugging along, and played for a relatively small, but enthusiastic, early crowd at the 930 Club Friday night.
His voice – rumbling and powerful, yet elastic and full of soft spoken grace – remains as fresh today as it is low and menacing, still perfect for delivering the poetic sentiments and verses from Mark Lanegan’s tortured, grungy soul. It hasn’t lost an ounce of its power to lay a grating trance over the audience, hitting you right in the face and gut like a powerful spell.
The band played a big range of easily recognizable songs, the majority coming from Blues Funeral, released this year and the reason for the current tour. They began the show with “The Gravedigger’s Song” and “Ode to muddy Water,” the most Lanegan-esque songs on the album, later playing the trippier “Grey Goes Black,” then the up-beat, lighter tracks “Ode to Disco” and “Quiver Song” that suggest a slightly different direction for this album from his past six solo projects.
Lanegan also delved into past albums quite a bit, playing “Hit the City” and “Wedding Dress” from Bubblegum, arguably Lanegan’s most successful solo project to date, and “One Way Street” and “Resurrection Song” from Field Songs. He even rummaged into I’ll Take Care of You, playing “Creeping Coastline of Lights.”
Sean Wheeler and Zander Schloss opened, playing a folky, country contrast to Mark Lanegan and crew. Two ragamuffin-looking, music-making goofballs wearing their hearts on their sleeves and in their facial and body expressions, they weren’t afraid to let loose, even when their antics didn’t really work out. Like the moment Wheeler threw the mic high up in the air, only to have it crash to the floor. Or a few minutes later when he tried the same trick with his hat, which also fell just out of reach of his outstretched hand. But they delighted and energized the crowd, and it’s always a good thing to see artists having the time of their life on stage.
Mark Lanegan, on the other hand, was characteristically obtuse and unapproachable. He stands just above six feet, but with his commanding presence and unsmiling angular features in the eerie red light, he seemed to tower over the audience, dagger-like eyes piercing the crowd, giving him the appearance of a statuesque demon leader. His left hand never left the top of the microphone and his right hand remained snuggly on the mic stand. His left foot was always two inches forward from his right, his lower jaw stiffly jutting forward. The only indication that the music was coming from somewhere deep inside, moving him, not just moving through him, was some eyebrow lifts when he hit a particularly compelling note and maybe a dramatic lean or two toward the back of the stage and head turn to the right.
It wasn’t until well over half way through the show that he addressed the audience for the first time, simply acknowledging and naming off the members of band. Four others join him on stage for this tour and overall the whole band was just as insular and distant as Lanegan.
His one-dimensional expression didn’t really take away anything from the show though; I think it works for him, because it’s an important element of the persona that gives his music credibility. He doesn’t seem to have lost much of his edge over the last three decades, and he recently compared reading reviews about himself to getting a prostate exam, so I’m pretty sure he stopped caring what anyone thinks a long time ago.
They ended their set with “Tiny Grain of Truth” from Blues Funeral, a song that on the album sounds, annoyingly, more like a U2 track. On stage it turned out to be the type of song that reminds you why you go see bands live. This slow-building song matched guitarist Steven Janssens’ screaming, piercing guitar against Lanegan’s steady, mumbling voice, complimenting one another and at the same time sounding like two separate solos. But it’s also one of the lighter songs from Blues Funeral that seems airy and incomplete, so no one had any doubt that there was more to come.
Encore song number one was “Harborview Hospital” from Blues Funeral, another song that highlights the lighter, more electronic direction Lanegan seems to be taking. But after addressing the crowd with a gruff mumble for exactly the second time of the evening, “Thanks we really appreciate it a lot guys,” the crowd went wild when they finished, predictably, with “Methamphetamine.”