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article imageReview: A mixed bag at Daniel Lanois tribute concert Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jun 12, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Celebrities gathered in Toronto on Tuesday night to pay tribute to the music and career of Daniel Lanois. While there were beautiful sounds, there were also two clearly competing visions of musicality at work.
The concert, called Sleeping in the Devil's Bed: The Music of Daniel Lanois, was a part of the annual Luminato Festival, which celebrates arts and culture both local and international. Having feted great Canadian performers in the past (including Joni Mitchell and Neil Young), the Festival chose this year to celebrate the life and work of one of Canada's most well-known and prolific singer/songwriters and producers.
The Quebec-born Lanois, who's both produced work for U2, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Emmylou Harris, also has an impressive collection of solo efforts, scores, and band projects; all of these musical pursuits were acknowledged at Tuesday's concert at the historic Massey Hall. Some efforts were more successful than others.
Opening with a folksy rendition of Lanois' well-loved "The Maker" (from Lanois' debut solo album, Acadie), by husband-and-wife duo of Americana-roots band The Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks), the concert was a mixed bag of sounds. Its first half, marred by sound issues, delays, and the stop and restart of more than a few numbers, felt jolting, if strangely theatrical. Lanois, showing up at the midway point onstage and never really leaving, showed his frustration and seemed annoyed at the set-up. He voiced displeasure with the bass drum being further away than what he was regularly used to, and admonished Dirty Three drummer Jim White for his using brushes in a particular number. ("I hate brushes!") The concert's second half featured Lanois playing polished versions of his own music, music he'd produced, or sometimes both, with a few brief interludes featuring other performers. At various points, the show morphed into a Daniel Lanois/Emmylou Harris concert (the two have recently been touring Europe with material from Harris' 1995 release, Wrecking Ball) and far less of a unique musical experiment. That's a pity, because it robbed the audience of an opportunity to consider Lanois' canon in a new light and think about its possible sonic elasticity, to say nothing of its relevance to a 21st-century audience. In retrospect, the irony of Willner writing in the program about the elements that keep producers from being friends with other producers ("... whether it was territorial, ego, pride or just plain jealousy, this was often the case...") seems particularly poignant, and yet somehow sad.
The sound that made Lanois famous — big, shimmering, rich, thick — is very identifiable, very specific, and somehow very rooted in the 1980s and 1990s; it's almost a vintage sort sort of thing, which isn't bad in and of itself, but it does color that sound with a strong connection to a specific time and place in the cultural world. Busting the music out of such a restrictive box isn't easy, but conductor/composer/multi-instrumentalist Michael Gibbs and composer/ musician Doug Wieselman made compelling, frequently inspiring efforts. Their respective arrangements of Lanois’ work (original and produced) for the small orchestra set up onstage were simply magical, offering thoughtful interpretations that stood as much more than filler between performers. A kind of new-old mismash that embraced the symphonic while almost completely abandoning that Lanois "sound," it made for a mesmerizing audio experience. The orchestral interludes were a special treat for those interested in the more granular aspects of Lanois' output, like the little-known (but sonically haunting) soundtracks to The Million Dollar Hotel and Sling Blade, elements of both being skillfully, knowingly folded into Wieselman's wise, arresting arrangements.
Singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright performed a selection of original music by Daniel Lanois as well...
Singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright performed a selection of original music by Daniel Lanois as well as music he produced for other artists. She also paired with Lanois himself on a powerful version of "The Messenger", the first song on his 1993 album 'For the Beauty of Wynona.'
Racheal McCaig via
For all the sound snafus of the concert's first half, the depth of the artists' sincerity cannot be overstated. Martha Wainwright delivered a stirring performance of "Death of a Train" in the concert's first half (the song is from Lanois' 1993 album For the Beauty of Wynona), and a roaring, deliciously angry rendition of Bob Dylan’s "Standing in the Doorway" (from 1997's Time Out Of Mind, which Lanois produced) in the second. In a more experimental vein was Mary Margaret O’Hara, who delivered soulful performances of "St. Ann's Gold" (from Acadie) and "Sweet Soul Honey" (from Lanois' 2004 album Rockets) bellowing at some points, squeaking at others. Experiencing O'Hara is always a special, sometimes strange experience — but once the audience (and the singer herself) gets past personal tics, the effect is akin to witnessing a hurricane onstage. O'Hara was freely referencing Patti Smith and Yoko Ono while keeping a sound entirely unique; she channeled something new, interesting, and wholly memorable, breathing whole new life into those particular Lanois works and making us re-think their traditional arrangements.
Roots band The Handsome Family were among the many performers paying tribute to Daniel Lanois in Tor...
Roots band The Handsome Family were among the many performers paying tribute to Daniel Lanois in Toronto June 10th.
Racheal McCaig via
The Handsome Family delved into the heart of Lanois’ folk-like repertoire, performing crunchy, Americana-flavored interpretations of both “The Maker” (which started the concert) and Willie Nelson’s haunting "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye"" from his 1998 release Teatro, which Lanois produced. Just as impressive was the back-up provided by a solid group of musicians including legendary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and Dirty Three's fantastically energetic and creative drummer, Jim White. Lanois' gifted guitarist Jim Wilson provided solid backing too, and presented his tuneful "Honest Mistake" to enthusiastic reception.
Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew offered a jovial, emcee-like presence, crediting Lanois for his being a “normal guy” when they met years ago, and relating a tale of meeting the producer/musician on the streets of Toronto just after the release of U2’s Achtung Baby in late 1991, an album Lanois co-produced with Brian Eno. Drew also helped pop legend Andy Kim (the man behind "Sugar Sugar") in a brutally plodding, percussion-heavy performance of “One,” the Irish super-band’s signature hit, which the pair had rehearsed only hours before. Toronto's Regent Park School of Music delivered a poetic re-envisioning of Lanois” “Moondog” (from Here Is What Is), offering a truly creative, haunting performance. The four young female singers, together with a group of talented young musicians (including one girl on steelpan), delivered a soulful, creative re-imagining worth every woot and plaudit at the song's end. Equally as hypnotizing was singer/songwriter Rocco DeLuca giving a searingly gorgeous performance of "Nightingale" (taken from his 2009 album Mercy), playing guitar, with Lanois on slide. It was a simple if beautiful arrangement that rightly left jaws hanging.
Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris performed several numbers together during the tribute to Lanois at ...
Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris performed several numbers together during the tribute to Lanois at Massey Hall in Toronto.
Racheal McCaig via
Just as affecting was vocal powerhouse Trixie Whitley, who was part of Lanois' Black Dub project in the late 2000s. Despite the workman-like nature of the arrangements (they varied very little from the formal releases/videos), Whitley's powerful, bluesy voice, and sweet, aw-shucks stage presence was a beguiling combination, one made all the more delightful when the young singer, dressed in a floor-length fitted olive gown, took to one of the two drum kits onstage to bash out the remainder of blues-rock-ish "Nomad." Emmylou Harris, resplendent in a long black skirt and shiny long white hair, carried a more mystical if magisterial stage presence. (One begins to suspect she's Stevie Nicks' country/roots sister.) Her frequent collaborations with Lanois over the course of the evening were tuneful and pretty enough; it’s obvious the pair have a solid musical chemistry and trust. Among their numerous performances were melodious readings of Lucinda Williams' 1992 hit "Sweet Old World" (though Harris' wispy vocals in the upper register grated) and Lanois' "Where Will I Be", from his 2008 album Here Is What Is.
But one somehow craved something more musically meaty — the return of O'Hara's percussive squeaks, or Scottish singer Alisdair Roberts' plaintive, unaffected voice, or Wainwright's furious wailing, to say nothing of Gibbs' and Wieselman's unique, masterful arrangements.
The extra "something" Willner's producer presence was meant to imbue simply wasn't there; it had clashed too early, too often, too obviously, with another producer's vision. As Willner writes in the program notes, "Daniel's work shows what music is capable of being: so powerful and beautiful." But if music is to have a relevance to our contemporary lives and meaning that goes past its immediate, cozy-industry corral, it should also be thoughtful, challenging, and offer something new to listeners and fans, something that reaches past sounds associated with specific time eras. Sleeping in the Devil's Bed succeeded somewhat in the beauty department; as for the rest, well, Satan was too busy snoozing to notice us taking a place beside him and yawning.
More about daniel lanois, Hal Willner, Martha Wainwright, emmylou harris, Willie nelson
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