Two of my favorite albums of the past decade involve Mark Lanegan: his solo album Bubblegum and his first collaboration with Isobel Campbell, Ballad of the Broken Seas. I know his work with Campbell is supposed to be her showcase rather than his, but I am a much bigger fan of his grittier work and aesthetic.
As a fairly recent fan, I’d only ever seen him perform live one time, a couple years ago at a Gutter Twins show. That was pretty fun, but I was more interested in the Isobel Campbell pairing. I love the contrast between the two of them, it’s like butterflies and heroin.
Coincidentally, Belle and Sebastian were in town at the same time; I believe they played the previous night. I was curious about how Isobel Campbell felt about the fact that her old band was playing at the humongous DAR Constitution Hall while she was kicking it at the dingy, mediocre Rock and Roll Hotel, where the sound was consistently awful, with feedback and noise marring their quiet material. I hope she is happy with her path. I like Belle and Sebastian, too, but am more impressed by her pursuit of interesting material and collaborators.
I made it to the show too late to see opener Willy Mason, but he was a big presence during the Campbell/Lanegan set too, taking vocal leads on a few songs mid-set. I liked him ok — pretty much straightforward country. It was convenient that I have gotten a lot more into country in the past few years.
But Lanegan was so much more compelling that the Mason numbers were sort of unnecessary. Lanegan was relatively sprightly: he tapped his fingers on the microphone, he swayed a little, he told a joke, he even seemed to grin at some point. It was like Campbell was dragging a glimmer of liveliness out of this usual dour statue with a microphone. My friends and I were amused.
The band was really great, though it was a shame how terrible the sound quality was. I even felt a little embarrassed as the band decided to just plow through, buzzing noises be damned. It detracted a lot from Campbell’s performance, since she has such a soft voice. She broke out the cello a few times, danced around or played percussion at other times, and was generally a strong and charismatic figure. (Plus, she was super cute with her shirt half unbuttoned; for the encore I got close to the stage and was like, oh my gosh she is wearing shorts! though with tights… but why didn’t I get closer to her before??)
But Lanegan just has such an incredible voice that he easily stole the show. Campbell’s voice was a little overpowered throughout the night. I don’t know too much of their second or new albums, but I heard almost all the songs I wanted to hear from their debut, plus some memorable newer ones like “Back Burner” where Isobel Campbell sounded like a sexier PJ Harvey (if you can believe there is such a thing!).
Overall it was a really strong performance, despite the shoddy sound. I would love to see these two again at a better venue. And I will be sure to catch up on their material in the meantime.
Here is another review via Knox Road.