Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan

To see Christmas as religious festivity and not an occasion to buy presents to fuel consumerism (and save recession) is hard. To believe that a rock concert can happen into a proper, working church in Christmas time is a miracle.

Union Chapel, formally a working church with Mass, weddings and funerals celebrated, has been hosting a rock gig that stressed the doctrine even further.
Isobel Campbel & Mark Lanegan came to play here.
A victorian Gothic architecture, octagonal plan, 800 seats in rigorously uncomfortable church, wooden benches and the stage set on the altar.
Protestants are not known to be the most orthodox religious cult, but when I listen to some rural blues aired from the speaker and permeating the atmosphere fuelled with Lanegan fans I think that is quite a landmark win for the Devil, isn’t it?

You perceive to be in a different venue from the entrance gate. Inside a small room is used as a bar. Instead of selling alcohol, forbidden, is offering warm beverages. A “dogma” of Brit live scene, the dripping pint spilling sticky beer all over the floor, is tonight replaced by porcelaine mugs. Interestingly, people seem to enjoy sipping a cup of tea in the place of a lager, the English will never stop surprising me.

To complete such a original Christmas concert, after those blues caressing the marble altar, what better than an ex “screaming tree” coming to sing next to a Christmas tree? Dicto.
Just before Mark Lanegan comes on stage a guy switches off the blue light decorations from the Christmas tree. Avoiding the competition Mark? (Sorry, I am pissed off because I wanted to take some shots of him with the Christmas tree!)

From an album titled Whiskey for the Holy Ghost to singing his songs in a church; Lanegan‘s can be considered the most succesfull journey a barman has ever attempted. Unlikely we won’t know if the Holy Ghost liked single malt or blended.

Definitely the audience went for the most classic of blends.

Isobel Campbell shares the stage with him tonight. If there is an end of the year poll for the most angelic presence, she deserves winning. Her white dress balances his dark silhouette as much as her sweet voice counterbalances his murky timbre. Equilibrium, unstable, but still equilibrium. White and black, bright and dark, the beauty and the beast. Classic stuff for anyone’s reveries.

They must feel the place. Their first ever recorded song, opening the Ballad of the Broken Seas debut, Deus ibi est (God is there) is left to the second place.
The show opens with Seafaring Song, as Sunday at the Devil Dirt (their second album) does.
God and Devil, heaven and hell…it is going to be a sacred and profane theme nigth.

A very generous 21 songs setlist is stuck on the floor.
I am happy to see it even if at the end of the show it will be a reason why I’d take out a star out of the 5 given to a faultless performance.
All the best moments of their two albums are played and also 2 more songs from the new EP. Keep me in Mind Sweetheart sounds beautiful at a first listen. They played their entire career, which is nice, but inevitably had some weak points.

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan are famous for their interpretations but they show some weakness when it comes to original song-writing. On a long sequence of songs this is clear.
If few of their songs are perfect to sit comfortably in a compilation along Tom Waits’ or Nick Cave‘s darest music, others are sugary ballads lacking a start, an end, a heart and a reason.

What saves this show and makes it a thrilling experience is their singing.
Mark Lanegan has one of my favourite voices ever and I am not alone thinking this. Live, in the stripped down versions of these ballads, he emerges so intensely from the dark to give me creeps few times.
Isobel Campbell looks a bit intimidated by such a shadowy figure (…and too worried about an “unstable” dress) but when her sharp tone harmonizes with Lanegan singing the magic materializes amid the arcades.

Unfortunately the mutual understanding doesn’t go beyond the music. If I played to be a music journalist, I would now take out the second of the five stars to complain about the absence of any emotional interaction between the two. Let’s be clear, I am not expecting they perform The Beauty and the Beast live, but showing some reciprocal interest, some awareness of the other’s presence would be of benefit. The audience is eagerly waiting for a glance, some signs and they will be deluded until the end.

I wondered what they were both thinking when singing:

“Sunday best, you’re my favourite suit
You make the team, you’re no substitute
I know baby I’m your favourite song
Listen up and come on over, turn me on”

[Come on over (turn me on) – Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan]

What is instead a pleasant presence is the backing band. Four young guys, powerful and precise, delicate and discrete, alternate on acoustic and electric instruments to play the songs faithful to the recorded versions. It is the best choice. For two of the busiest rock agendas that manage to meet only when their schedules don’t overlap, reworking the songs would be a risky choice.
Isobel sporadically adds her cello playing but the bulk of the music is coming from the band and they appropriately concentrate on the singing.

The show closes in style. Lanegan’s picks his Wedding Dress, from Bubblegum.
What a good choice to close a concert in a Chapel. A classic Lanegan track, his voice over a noisy guitar solo and the addition of the “beauty” to the vocals make this version better than the recorded one.
The closing verse “now you love me, get a room, so you can love me”, unfortunately fails to make the fairytale believable. She clearly doesn’t love him and he doesn’t love her. They are probably already on two different planes following their projects.
Everyone love their songs, though, and this is what counts.

I may be failing on my google skills today, but I could not find anything official related to them. My feeling of absence of any interaction between them is reinforced.
Below their separate myspace pages and Isobel Campbell website. Mark Lanegan apparently failed to pay for his domain which is now suspended. If you know Mark remind him of paying the fee, if you are aware of the existence of a joined website, please use the comment box to let me know.
Isobel Campbell [myspace] [website]
Mark Lanegan [myspace]

Photo Tip

It’s a Christmas post, I can’t think anything more appropriate than a photo tip about a church.
The Union Chapel is in Islington, London. When it is hosting concerts, the stage is just in front of the marble altar. The speakers each side of it. The all seated audience on the church benches. They follow the octagonal plan and climb to the back on the first floor.

Taking picture has the difficulties of all-seated venues. First row people are disappointed by you standing in front of them, they don’t always know you are staying for three song so better tell them before the start.

Lighting tonight was so dark that I not only failed any attempt to photograph the place, but I struggled to get picture of the artists too. It was likely to be a Campbell/Lanegan choice but if you are going there don’t forget the fastest lenses you have.

Basically all the light was supplied by two coloured spots either side of the stage. No frontlights, no white lights. It was good for some silhouette effect using Lanegan to cover one spot, pretty hard to take photos of them together. They were standing quite far and the aperture I used most of the time was f1.4. Both on my 35mm and 85mm depth of field was measurable in centimeters. Even focusing becomes a problem in these conditions.

Back home I decided to develop the films for few more minutes, just to be sure to get them dense enough, so I would say the ISO I pushed the film was around 1600 instead of my usual 800.

Back to the Union Chapel. If it was difficult from the front I couldn’t take any pic from the first floor. But consider it as an option (hopefully after the 3 songs security let you do that). There are some good spots to take pictures, with a moderate telephoto, of the entire stage from an elevated position.
Next time I go there, assuming is brighter, I’ll try to give it a go.

A good advice, the seat are unreserved, which means they are taken on a first come first served base. If you have a photopass and arrive there early, take a front row seat (I managed to get one slightly on the side) so you can stay to see the gig.
Theoretically official photographers are allowed to shoot after the 3rd song. The audience have been snapping with flash throughout. I decided to wait for the encore then I joined the crowd misbehaviour and finished my films as well.

Right, it’s Christmas, 2008 closes in a week and will be ready, up and running next year.
Merry Christmas to everyone, have a happy new year and meet you all for a wonderful 2009 of live music. B&W films are still available, I read sales are growing so no needs of digitalising my images.

Thanks for reading and keep supporting and “glorious B&W film” photography.


~ by Valerio on December 25, 2008.

6 Responses to “Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan”

  1. SOLO IO?
    Sigh sigh sigh che figo beato te, io comunque lo preferisco da solo.

  2. ti stavo aspettando al varco…se tutto va bene col pass stesso posto altro duo, il 19 con greg dulli… Gutter Twins

  3. Veniva anche a Milano! Possibile che la data di Banda Aceh salti?

  4. Vuoi dirmi che a Banda Aceh non c’e’ di meglio da fare che aspettare Lanegan!

  5. anch’io lo preferisco quando si decide a fare un tour da solo?????? uff..
    Bellissime foto :) sopratuttto la quinta e la decima

  6. le uniche con un po’ di luce :-)

    La prima resta la mia preferita, soprattutto stampata su carta… lo sguardo adorante di Isobell contro la Mark indifferenza e’ il riassunto di tutta la loro collaborazione

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