Anti-Thesis: A Night Showcasing Anti- Records’ Diversity, Daniel Lanois Style

The mainstream appeal of Daniel Lanois' Anti-Thesis show may not have been huge, but the creativity level of the performances ranks among the highest of all shows in 2014.
Lonnie Holley

Legendary producer and multi-faceted musician Daniel Lanois displays many admirable traits throughout his storied career. Chief among them is his strong ear for talent and his ability to bring together a varied group of artists for a recording session, an asset that correlates with Anti-Thesis, an event convened at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple on 10 November. Lanois was asked to curate the show by Anti- label head Andy Kaulkin. Lanois, who had previously released 2003’s Shine and 2005’s Belladonna on the label, saw Anti- as an obvious choice for his latest, Flesh and Machine. As Lanois’ manager, Seth Loeser, explains via email, “Flesh and Machine is the kind of record which requires a forward thinking, outside-of-the-box label”, something which Anti- prides itself on.

Anti- sprouted from punk imprint Epitaph in 1999. The label’s name alone, along with that all important hyphen, connotes a rebellious spirit, but the ways in which the label operated in opposition to the norm was as far from punk as its chief artists were and are. Tom Waits’ Mule Variations was the release through which Anti- made its debut. Its most consistently bankable artists are Waits and Neko Case, but that fact ultimately belies some of Anti-’s more remarkable feats. These include Solomon Burke’s Grammy-winning LP Don’t Give Up on Me and the pairing of gospel and soul singers like Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette with indie royalty such as Jeff Tweedy (who produced Staples’ You Are Not Alone and One True Vine) and Drive By Truckers (who backed LaVette on The Scene of the Crime). The label clearly casts its net wide, encompassing acts deserving of the smart, varied audience a respectable label provides.

A Tape Op interview with Lanois from 2003 , which complements Lanois’ flair for bringing a “completely different perspective to a certain genre of music…”, echoes Anti-Thesis’ billing as “a celebration of music from vastly different origins which exists outside of traditional genres, structures and rules.” Although such a statement has worked wonderfully for Anti- as a label, pulling off such a feat live can be a bit more difficult, unless it’s a festival-sized spectacle promising a few monumental names. To draw a thread between the acts in Anti-Thesis’ line up — which features Brooklyn ambient-indie outfit the Antlers, Saharan rockers Tinariwen, Lanois and his non-Anti- support act Lonnie Holley — a round robin of remixes was conceived, with Lanois remixing songs by Tinariwen and the Antlers, and Antlers remixing a Tinariwen song in turn. Of his remix for Tinariwen, the Antlers’ Peter Silberman tells me, “It was a welcome challenge to break down their sound and re-contextualize it within my own style of production, while maintaining that ‘band’ feel and chemistry. So the trick was to find the place in the middle where our approaches intersect, and I think that was a similar idea that guided the Anti-Thesis show. All the (Anti-Thesis) artists were fairly different from one another, but what held the show together was that emphasis on genre-transcending exploration.”

Anti-’s encouragement and celebration of musical adventurousness feels particularly inspiring in a year where music has seen its continued devaluation and potential advances felt mostly stagnant. The mainstream appeal of Anti-Thesis’ artists may not be huge, but the creativity they put forth adds up to one of the most captivating performances of the year.

As a critic and as a human, there are a few things I unconditionally love. They are: outsider art, secret societies, primitive forms of animation, conventional rock and pop traditions interpreted by drastically different cultures, and the Antlers. Anti-Thesis, which features all these things in some capacity, feels tailored to my tastes. Some of these tastes are admittedly very niche, but any lack of commercial appeal Anti-Thesis threatens is countered by Tinariwen consistently exhibiting worldwide success and sold out tours. The crowd isn’t quite sell-out sized, but it keeps to a respectable number throughout the night. Truthfully, the only thing hurting the evening is the Brooklyn Masonic Temple’s less-than-pristine sound, to say nothing of its general atmosphere of a very opulent and mystical high school auditorium.

Perhaps the most greatly afflicted by the Temple’s poor sound quality is Lonnie Holley, the acclaimed outsider artist-cum-musician whose almost spoken word compositions rely on clear acoustics. Although not from the Anti- stable, Holley’s singular work reflects the night’s theme perfectly. Sadly, the venue stifles all but Holley’s impassioned, gospel-style singing and lilting synth lines, captured so effectively on 2013’s Keeping a Record of It. Joined on stage by percussionist Will Glass and the Antlers’ touring keyboardist and trumpeter Kelly Pratt, the songs sustains a low boil musically. Although Holley’s lyrics are difficult to decipher, the fathoms of emotion in his voice take hold over the proceedings, enlivening those who care to ignore the unintelligibility. Holley acted as support on Lanois’ recently concluded US tour, a coup which came from “So many friends and colleagues… mentioning Lonnie to us over the last few years that it seemed natural to offer him the tour support spot on this run of dates,” Loeser says. Lanois and drummer Brian Blade accompanied Holley for his sets throughout the tour, from which a live album may transpire.

There is often a preconception that electronic and instrumental rock music can be dull live, but anyone who believes this has never seen Daniel Lanois in action. In keeping with his aim of bringing the studio to the stage, the Masonic Temple’s modest set up is littered with gear racks and other various modules to be used for live composition-building. If this isn’t enough, each of Lanois’ pieces comes with its own video, ranging from the sexy black and white projection which accompanies “Sioux Lookout” to a 150 year-old animation piece, its movement accomplished through the use of rotating discs. The results are spellbinding in a way entirely new to my experience as a concertgoer. The combined proficiency of Lanois, bassist Jim Wilson, and drummer Brian Blade, paired with stunning visuals and exhilarating sounds, makes for the best possible version of sensory overload. Given that all sampling and processing is done live, each of Lanois’ sets in support of Flesh and Machine is unique in and of itself, a novel approach that only someone as adept as Lanois could pull off.

Although Lanois is the curator for the night, his set carries the same abbreviated set time as all the night’s acts, only lasting slightly longer than 30 minutes. Lanois concludes his all-too-brief time on stage on an analog note, taking to his trusty pedal steel guitar. After the rousing electronic experiments that came before, this tranquil ending further works in profound opposition to anyone who might believe electronic music to be soulless and ambient music to be dull. Whether producing sounds organically or synthetically, Lanois is working with heart and passion fully intact.

Lanois’ ability to filter ambient properties through traditional rock instruments works as a nice lead-in to the Antlers, whose wonderful 2014 release Familiars shares a lot of the ambient genre’s warmth and beauty. The band’s growing performance confidence compensates for a set that, again, suffered at the hands of the Masonic Temple’s poor sound system. Singer and guitarist Peter Silberman seemed more present here than in some earlier performances. Where at times in the past he seemed like a channel for his staggering voice, on this night Silberman appears more intimately connected with the crowd, a feeling that is perhaps intensified by bright stage lights shining on those in attendance. Multi-instrumentalist Darby Cicci is always a pleasure to watch at work, playing trumpet and keyboard simultaneously, then doubled by the aforementioned Pratt, who throws a flute into the mix as well. Although the set consists of just a handful of Familiars songs, the outcome has the same comforting and revitalizing effect as listening to the album straight through.

The night concludes with all acts on stage for a laid back jam session. It is difficult to discern exactly what is going on sound-wise — one more jeer for the Masonic Temple’s sound system — but the jam works in driving home the night’s, and in turn, Anti-’s, diversity. Kaulkin, in 2007, praises his artists’ ability to tread “their own path… It doesn’t matter what genre it is. You can do that in any genre, and you can do that at any age”.

Anti-Thesis illustrates this point admirably. The night represents a worthy example of outside-the-box composition, as well as an act of solidarity in traveling new avenues of sound or adding new flourishes to an already existing form of music. Although it is unclear if Anti-Thesis is a one-off show, one must hope that it will hopefully lead to better things sonically or, at the very least, inspire others to approach musical discovery with the same fervor as Lanois and co.