In an aural dictionary, Mark Lanegan’s voice would reverberate out in equal measure as the definitions of “desolation” and “solace”. Occupying the netherworld between such disparate realms has always been Lanegan’s forte, one which he unfurled with all manner of weird chills and dark rumblings at his May 16 show in Hamtramck, Michigan. It’s been a long time coming, being his first stop in the Detroit area in a decade.
Murmurs and palatable anticipation occupied the sold-out crowd gathered in Small’s Bar — if ever there was a more appropriate name for a venue, I’ve not heard it — before Lanegan silently mounted the stage with his four-member band and launched into the throbbing fuzz of “The Gravedigger’s Song” from new album Blues Funeral. Throughout the next hour-and-a-half, Lanegan cranked out a nineteen song setlist, only pausing to thank the audience and introduce his bandmates. And yet, the crowd was enthralled by Lanegan’s now archetypical stage persona — clad entirely in black, gripping the mic stand with the same tenacity as the Grim Reaper clings to his scythe. Apart from his tattooed fingers tapping and his bushy-topped head nodding to the beat, the singer let his voice do the talking. In displaying such minimalism, Lanegan proved the adage that you get more attention with a whisper than a shout.
Wincing at the endless barrage of camera phone flashes assaulting his eyes, Lanegan treated fans to a litany of detox elegies and ruminations on mortality and resurrection, alternating between down-tempo dirges and ramshackle rockers. The stagnant, humid air and low lights fashioned the ideal atmosphere, with the bar’s natural acoustics perfectly suited for conveying the nuances of Lanegan’s impossibly low vocals. As the venue was formerly a bank built in 1923, how fitting is it to have such sepulchral intonations billowing out from a former vault?
In reading about the man, you’re hard-pressed to find any write-up that doesn’t go with the by-numbers descriptions of his distinctive baritone — gravely, whiskey-soaked, nicotine-scarred, etc. For my money, his voice has always sounded like the taste of a full-bodied merlot, warm, rich and intoxicating. From serrated bellow to sultry croon, every facet of Lanegan’s instrument was on display.
On “Sleep with Me”, Lanegan howled with all the seductive menace of a sex-starved devil, attempting to lure a young virgin to comfort him in his pit. With the morbid “Wedding Dress”, a venomous bassline slithered beneath Lanegan’s voice as he questioned how far love is truly willing to go — “Will you be shamed if I shake like I’m dying? / When I fall to my knees and I’m dying? / Will you visit me where my body rests? / Will you put on that long, white dress?”. But rather than slinking off as in its studio version, in the live setting, the song erupted into a cacophonous uproar as soon as Lanegan delivered his closing lines, the instrumentalists competing with one another for dominance as their frontman stood as the eye of the hurricane.
The autumnal “One Way Street” arrived as the chaos petered out. Possibly the purest distillation of Lanegan’s recurring themes (“When I’m dressed in white, send roses to me / I drink so much sour whiskey I can hardly see”), the song is the sound of loneliness, evoking images of dead leaves blowing through a ghost town’s old main drag. The sentiment was echoed in the coming-down narrative “One Hundred Days”, a visit to a dilapidated port of call. “From my fingertips / This cigarette throws ashes to the ground / I’d stop to talk to the girls who work this street / But I got business farther down”, Lanegan sang, testing the resistance to temptation while waxing nostalgic for the days of depravity gone by.
Nearly all of the night’s songs hailed from Lanegan’s solo work, the majority from his last few rock- and electronic-influenced records, with a few of his acoustic folk-blues numbers peppering throughout. If you came to hear Gutter Twins, Soulsavers, Isobel Campbell or Queens of the Stone Age numbers, you left disappointed. That being said, it’s unlikely any Lanegan devotees expected anything of the kind. Seemingly borne of their leader’s desire to invert expectations, the band dusted off two deep cuts from Lanegan’s first group, the Screaming Trees, whom he frequently disparages in interviews. Both of those songs, the brooding “Crawlspace” and the more straight ahead rocking “Black Rose Way”, were recorded for the Trees’ lost album, which only officially saw the light of day in 2011 in the form of the aptly titled Last Words. How more obscure can you get?
Of course, a highlight of any show where an artist’s new music is performed is gaining new insight or appreciation for those songs you’ve yet to fully develop an opinion of. Among the best representations from Lanegan’s new album were the Joy Division-esque “Gray Goes Black” and “Ode to Sad Disco”. The former’s fluttering guitar parts between verses flickered like streetlights over a late night getaway, while the latter — inarguably the oddest song in Lanegan’s oeuvre — had attendees shambling on the floor like the undead to the pulsating rhythm and industrial drums.
The four song encore featured the oldest song of the set, older than even the Trees numbers, in “Pendulum”, from 1994’s Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. No one pulls off world-weary better than Lanegan, and never has he done so more convincingly in the song’s dustbowl fatalism. “Swing pendulum, swing low / Got no place to call my own / Oh my Lord, don’t you bother me / I’m as tired as a man can be”, Lanegan moaned above the desert-sweeping guitars, no trace of artifice to be found. To close the show, Lanegan conjured the clanging paranoia of “Methamphetamine Blues”, a song which is only rivaled by the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” in its authentic representation of a drug-addled mind spitting in the face of death.
Following the performance, Lanegan again flouted his perception of an intimidating, standoffish ogre by inviting attendees to visit him at the merch booth. He patiently shook hands, signed LPs and took pictures with his fans, speaking softly and looking them directly in the eyes when answering their questions. (This being my second time meeting the man, I wasn’t quite reduced to a giddy schoolgirl, though the photo I took with him seems to indicate otherwise.) It was the perfect capstone for a night of funerary blues and dead slow rock ‘n’ roll, stretched like bubblegum.
1) The Gravedigger’s Song (Blues Funeral)
2) Sleep With Me (Here Comes That Weird Chill EP)
3) Hit the City (Bubblegum)
4) Wedding Dress (Bubblegum)
5) One Way Street (Field Songs)
6) Gray Goes Black (Blues Funeral)
7) Crawlspace (Screaming Trees’ Last Words)
8) Quiver Syndrome (Blues Funeral)
9) One Hundred Days (Bubblegum)
10) Creeping Coastline of Lights (Leaving Trains cover, I’ll Take Care of You)
11) Black Rose Way (Screaming Trees’ Last Words)
12) Riot in My House (Blues Funeral)
13) Ode to Sad Disco (Blues Funeral)
14) St. Louis Elegy (Blues Funeral)
15) Tiny Grain of Truth (Blues Funeral)
16) Wish You Well (Here Comes That Weird Chill EP)
17) Pendulum (Whiskey For the Holy Ghost)
18) Harborview Hospital (Blues Funeral)
19) Methamphetamine Blues (Bubblegum)