Soulsavers with Mark Lanegan
Third time in a year I came across a music project that involves Mark Lanegan.
Second time in a row this happens for my Christmas post. Last year “the beast” was pairing with “the beauty”, Isobel Campbell inside the very Christmassy Union Chapel.
This year Lanegan joined on stage Soulsavers for a gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. Mark Lanegan is becoming a sort of Live on 35mm Santa Claus, or “Satan Claus”.
Not sure about the catholic intention behind Soulsavers‘ name, is saving the soul the aim of their music? Fact is both band and song names fit a Christmas post of a non catholic Italian. Let’s see.
Soulsavers are a strange musical entity that sits in the middle between a proper band and a sort of production team that remixes songs creating a nice, slow tempo, atmospheric music.
They debuted in 2003 with, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
Josh Haden, son of jazzman Charlie Haden sang three tunes but it was when his song Spiritual was interpreted by Lanegan on their their sophomore release, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land, that the attention arrived.
On that album, Mr Mark Lanegan sang on all tunes except the instrumentals.
Lanegan voice is a stamp on anyone’s music, fact. He has the deepest, most cavernous voice of the scenes since Nick Cave exit depression.
If during the Screaming Trees era his baritone conserved high and strong pitches, with years it got deeper, gloomier, bluesier.
Such a voice fits his mysterious, auto segregated persona and generates thousands of adoring fans. Either women dreaming of him or men pretending to be him.
I don’t have nothing against the star system, it has always been and always will be. Fans ask and the system delivers references to suit any mood. Lanegan‘s attitude has been seen since Jim Morrison‘s darkest years and rock’n’roll annals report several examples.
What I find a bit disappointing is how, music-wise, his vocal contributions instead of adding a personal touch to original projects, take control of the whole. Every record that has Lanegan as special guest sounds as a Lanegan album with the original band as guest.
It is since Songs of the Deaf, Queens of The Stone Age 2003 landmark album that the ego of Lanegan hasn’t been contained. On that album the even stronger temper of Josh Homme managed to bring Lanegan into QOTSA and not vice versa.
With Soulsavers we are seeing the “Laneganization” of music.
“Mark Lanegan” is a brand, a franchise ready to put his sticker on any cover. As McDonald or Gap, he stamps a mark and leaves his flavour on everything he touches.
My comparison is a bit on the harsh side, I appreciate, Mark‘s voice is beautiful and million miles better than anything you can eat at McDonald, but my point holds.
Listening to Soulsavers’ Broken, can’t deny it is a good album but does not say anything to what Lanegan did already with them (and without). A collection of dark songs and ballads, rotating around the “Let me suffer, leave me alone” philosophy that always find sympathetic souls.
I arrive to the Electric Ballroom to see if live things are different. My illusion, I am wrong. Retrospectively, I should have guessed.
Soulsavers are comfortable in a recording studio. They master mixers and take control of all the buttons. On stage the situation is opposite.
Lanegan‘s ego is nourished by the audience. He sings the songs, he never speaks a single word in addition to the songs’ lyrics, takes his distinctive pose and catches the attention (and most of my 35mm frames).
Standing in front of the microphone, left hand on it, right hand on the pole. He sings with eyes closed, looks down, left or right when there is nothing to sing. Pulls some suffering faces. Dressed in a black elegant suit. Dark lights (he bloody always stands in the darkness) he’s silhouette looks like Jim Morrison‘s ghost.
This is Mark Lanegan on stage.
The first time you see him is fascinating.
Three gigs later spent in exactly the same position, despite three different collaborations, I start believing it is a pose.
It fits with the narcissistic character he plays on stage. The figure of the dark, unreachable man has always been a classic of female fantasies, hasn’t it?
I’d love to meet Lanegan in an informal situation and discover what kind of guy he is, I bet he has nothing to do with the one he personifies.
Truth is, as this review is proving, Lanegan charisma takes over. It’s easy to forget Soulsavers which is unfair, since they still put on a nice show.
As you would expect, with such a star in the dressing room, the gig opens with an instrumental, Ask the Dust. It let Soulsavers have their five minutes of stardom before the “black old sun” arrives to eclipse everything else.
Indeed. Ghosts of You and Me introduces the main theme of the night and the main theme of Lanegan last one thousand and one nights.
“If I had a black cat bone
Then I would not be alone
Do it Darling, dig my grave
This cemetry is my own
Is a long and lonesome road
Don’t ask me little Rosa
Which direction I don’t know”
Some Misunderstanding is the first track from Broken. Lanegan gives his best. His voice is deep but follows the melody that would fit with an early Pink Floyd record. It’s almost orchestral, hugs.
Fans believe he’s for real and they scream it out.
No one cares of the band, despite there is a guitarist playing nice Gilmour-ish stuff and a bass player that fights at the front to make himself visible it is in vain. Praise to the effort.
The song it’s very long, which is a great plus for my three-songs-no-flash photo slot in the pit. Not sure there are other reasons to have 8 minutes of this, though.
It’s Christmas time. Jesus of Nothing tries to shift the focus on the real star of the festivity and the electro-beat on the band, but as soon as the voice arrives, it’s still a Mark affair.
“Last go round
Seemed like my trail’s nearly ending
Been locked up
Going outta my head
Those blocking out the sun
I turn the ocean over
See nowhere to run
I’ve run so far already”
The harder tune, the single Death Bells, has guitars emerging and the song takes off. It is a nice break from the ballads. The flight lands soon in known terrain. The Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) piece, You Will Miss me When I Burn, is the other single taken from Broken.
In two line it synthesize all Lanegan‘s philosophy.
“When you have no one
No one can hurt you
There is absence, there is lack
There are wolves here abound
You will miss me
When I turn around”
Right, we got that Mark.
Paper Money is a rattle which acts as a nice interlude reminding me of Bad Seeds Red Right Hand. Kingdoms of Rain opening piano recalls Beethoven’s moonlight sonata and is difficult to differentiate from You Will Miss Me When I Burn.
The gig goes back into religious mood with Spiritual. Josh Haden song brings Jesus back on stage. Lanegan epitomises a vain priest singing a prayer… to himself
“Jesus, I don’t wanna die alone
Jesus oh Jesus I don’t wanna die alone
My love was untrue
Now all I have is you
Jesus oh Jesus I don’t wanna die alone
All my trouble
All my pain
Will leave me once again alone”
It may sounds illogical, but if this is the mood, the show works better when it is expressed at its most miserable downs like these.
Rolling Sky stands out as another good ambient song despite it lacks the presence of the dreaming voice of Red Ghost, the female singer who made her way to the album after overwhelming the band with demo tapes. Perseverance pays back.
Tonight her role is taken by two back singers that are standing isolated on the backstage, in the dark. Next time put their mic straight in the dressing room!
Another Jesus arrives, borrowed from ZZ Top! Jesus Just Left Chicago cover has nothing to do with what you expect from the rock-blues bearded trio, the “Laneganization” applies again.
Unbalanced Pieces it is one of the best track on Broken, more upbeat and with great guitar playing. On the album it is, pardon me, a “balanced piece”, there Mark Lanegan‘s voice meets Mike Patton‘s. The two singers at the very extreme of the music spectrum meet in a very interesting exercise. Tonight Patton is missing and the song despite the back vocalists effort becomes faithful to its title. Still a potentially great track, and Soulsavers‘ guitarist deserve another praise.
There is time for an encore. It hasn’t been a long gig, friday night Camden clubbers are impatiently waiting outside to kick the misery out of the Electric Ballroom. Soulsaver come back to interpret, Silent Night. No wonder, Mr “howling wolf” Lanegan refuses to join the “Christmas choir”.
He greets the devoted fans his way. Revival, the opening track from Soulsaver second album closes the show
“Said gonna be a revival tonight
I wanna see a revival
Gonna be a revival tonight
Lord, let there be a revival
Forgive what I have done
It means my soul’s survival,
I need you so,it’s sin
Put an end to my suffering
Why am I so blind with my eyes wide open?
Trying to get my hands clean in dirty water”
Lights are on, concert is finished. Indeed it was a revival of Lanegan‘s ego sountracked by a band who can record great music but still has to find its balance on a live stage.
Shooting Mark Lanegan is at the same time easy and difficult, intriguing and boring.
His pose is always the same, easy but boring.
He is always in the darke, difficult but intriguing.
What I noticed at this show was a spotlight on the ceiling that, thanks to the high stage of the Electric Ballroom, allowed to be used as a “rim light”.
Backlights are tricky but can be used at our advantage, which is what I am suggesting you to try.
Mount a very good lens with an excellent coating to obtain contrasted pictures without flare and ghost images.
Better you use your old prime, a 50mm, if your zoom is not one of those very expensive, heavy, professional objects.
Next thing to do is to study the musician position. With Lanegan it is easy because he basically doesn’t move, so you can move around him to find the right angle.
The spot you are after is the one where the head covers the backlight.
In such a situation the images will come out with a sort of white bright aura that emphasize the hair and make your subject stand out from the back.
It is a classic practice used in portrait photography light schemes. To set such a light in a studio is easy, at a gig you don’t have neither control of the lights nor of the subject so if you spot the chance, use it.
The other thing you have to check is the exposure. Shooting with a light playing hide and seek with singers’ head can trick even the most advanced multi matrix exposure meter.
Two suggestions. Either you spot measure on the subject face, or you use the same shutter/aperture pair you would use if the light wasn’t there. Test some shots with a couple of different manual settings you (digital shooters) will get the right conditions.
Remember that is better to overexpose a stop that having the subject underexposed.
Unless you are going for a silhouette, which is another tip.
Have a great break, celebrate in style the start of this new decade.
Live on 35mm will be back in 2010 with all the live music and photography you want… and much more. Stay tuned!