Through his work with bands like U2, cooperation with Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois is probably best known to many as a producer. With that he as left an indelible mark on the music of the past four decennnia, but to many it may have overshadowed his own music. So what to expect from a performance by Daniel Lanois, the musician? Last Saturday, the one-off chance was there to get the answer at Cultuurpodium De Boerderlij in Zoetermeer, The Netherlands. And that answer came, sincere, open and intense.
The visionary soundscapes and musical language Lanois developed through his collaboration with artists like Eno – works that everyone today claiming to create ‘ambient’ or ‘new age’ is indebted to – can since be identified as the signature of the master in everything he does. They can be heard in the works of artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris and many more he has worked with. As a fan one couldn’t be happier than with his latest album ‘Flesh and Machine’ from October 2014. It is full of the techniques he has used for years now as a producer, but shows that mastery shows itself not only in limitation but especially in control and evolution. To be able to review and re-invent their own work is what characterizes the greatests. Similar to the current exhibition of Late Rembrandt works in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, attending a performance by Lanois is what visiting Rembrandt’s workshop in the later years of his career would have been like. Both appear to have gone beyond technology in that stage of their carreers, and instead fully focus on form and expressiveness. Lanois doesn’t cram his work full of tricks and bizarre sound effects, which would be the over the top approach of lesser artists, but can read and write with two effects and creates his full sound using the simplest of rigs. Beyond the fringe, to the core.
And that core is Lanois, the musician. So, that Saturday evening the audience were ready to first undergo what most would have expected to be the somewhat obligatory ‘support act’, probably not bothered by much knowledge about Rocco DeLuca. Surprise, therefore, when after just one song Lanois stepped back onto the stage and sat down behind his instrument of choice, the pedal steel guitar. From that moment on there really was ‘support’, but it went both ways. During the whole show DeLuca came and went, joining the band to add his special vocal and instrumental input to the band. He was part of the band, more than just the warm-up which the traditional support act usually tends to be. No coincidence really after we learned that Lanois and DeLuca are practically neighbours in Canada, and have worked together on several occasions, including DeLuca’s latest eponymous album, which was produced by Lanois.
The basis for the music on ‘Flesh and Machine’ are numerous audio clips Lanois created, also from his own early works. Attentive listeners will have noticed the opening song of the show began with percussion samples from ‘Where the Hawkwind Kills’ from his 1989 album ‘Acadie’. The methods Lanois used to create the album were actually replicated on stage. Studio equipment was taken from the studio right onto the stage, which almost could make the audience feel as if they were a guest in ‘Studio Lanois’ (the basement, as he repeatedly referred to it himself). Working with the sounds and tracks, manipulating them realtime with effect processors, it was clear that the album title couldn’t have been more appropriately chosen: many of the characteristic sounds and atmospheres Lanois creates depend on the moment and a considerable amount of improvisation. With that approach Lanois is giving electronic music a true soul. Listening to tracks from his latest album live is like attending a jazz performance. You know the songs from the records, and hope that the night that you see it live the artists will feel the spirit and bring what they recorded to a higher level on stage.
And so it happened. Accompanied by alienating video projections in the background the band (drums Kyle Crane, bass/vocals and Korg Taurus bass pedals Jim Wilson, Lanois on electronics and pedal steel guitar/guitar/vocals) brought a mix of old and new works. The electric tracks took ambient as we knew if to an entirely new level – loud and heavy. Stillness was sought in the older works. Softly whispering or screaming loudly on the pedal steel guitar (with the unmistakable ‘layer-upon-layer stacked reverb’ Lanois-soundscapes – put two vintage Korg SDD-3000 digital delays on top and it will open up a whole new world for you), or strumming on his vintage Les Paul, Lanois gave a new life to songs such as ‘I Love You’ (album ‘Shine’, 2003), “The Maker” (“Acadie”, 1989) and “The Messenger” (“For the Beauty of Wynona” 1993) in beautifully scaled down versions. The alternation of old work and new, of electronics and acoustics, and the warm appearance of Lanois gave the experience a great intimacy. It really felt as if we were Daniel Lanois’ personal guests this night, and he allowed us a glimpse into his world.
The concert, or congregation as Lanois called it, lasted for almost two and a half hours, but they felt like fifteen minutes really. An indication that the audience in De Boerderij are the lucky few who have experienced this unique, one-off concert in the Netherlands. Might Lanois come over again, I would recommend anyone with only the slightest interest to go.