Mark Lanegan, Shepherds Bush Empire | reviews, news & interviews
Mark Lanegan, Shepherds Bush Empire
Mark Lanegan, Shepherds Bush Empire
The blues-rock survivor goes to hell and back in rare solo show
He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws… Ah wait now, that’s The Gruffalo. Mark Lanegan doesn’t have any of the above (although he does have tattooed fists and a considerable jaw, and past heroin addiction probably hasn’t played too well with the old teeth). But the grunge survivor turned celebrated American gothic bluesman is the gruffest man in rock, with a voice that makes Nick Cave seem like a bit of a pussy and Johnny Cash sound positively moisturised, and a complimentary reputation for hard living and hard dealing that warns baby music journalists to stay in their nests.
Solo sightings of Lanegan are rare, however, since the former Screaming Trees front man is – ironically, given his unapproachable image – a highly sought after collaborator. Between releasing his sixth solo album Bubblegum in 2004, and the follow up Blues Funeral this February, he’s worked with everyone from Queens Of The Stone Age to Soulsavers, Unkle to Greg Dulli, and even soundtracked the trailer for post-apocalyptic shooter Rage. And of course there were the three albums with one-time Belle & Sebastian cellist Isobel Campbell, a beauty and the beast style pairing that was surprising, not for generating a Mercury-nominated line in sin-filled alt.country duets, but for surviving the acutely, almost compellingly uncomfortable supporting live dates. In a travesty of all those Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood comparisons, Campbell giggled nervously and busied herself with a tambourine while Lanegan stalked to and from the mic without acknowledging a soul.
Bells toll, waters rise. Hellhounds are ridden and mountains of nails burn
Because what Lanegan isn’t, all will agree, is a showman. Tonight, bringing the brilliantly received Blues Funeral to a sell-out crowd, he shuffles into the pool of red light, takes the mic stand with both hands, fixes the right side of the auditorium with a pained, faraway frown and… stays there. Pretty much stock still. For about an hour and a half. Album and set opener “The Gravedigger’s Song” canters apocalyptically into bloodshot ballad “Sleep With Me”, which hardly has time to brood over its bruised libido before former single “Hit the City” is blasting us full in the face with its towering, glowering rock. With iron-rich riffs and more hooks than an abattoir, the opening three songs alone are like the aural equivalent of the 72Ib Texan Steak Challenge.
Meanwhile the uniformly black-clad Lanegan stands straight and still as a lightening conductor, letting the storm rage (and the guitarist pirouette showily) around him. His solo mission has always been to take the avant garde hard rock of bands like Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers and infuse it with the spirit of the blues. But even the “Sympathy for the Devil”-esque “Quiver Syndrome”, and an all-new foray into authentically, if not altogether convincingly, spanking electro-pop called “Ode to Sad Disco”, pass with little more than a slight twitching of the leg. We guess it takes a lot of energy to generate that huge, rough-hewn, revelatory rumble of a voice, something like the stone rolling from Lazarus’ tomb.
It’s not something everyone will respond to, this just-standing-there shtick, and by final encore “Methamphetamine Blues” a few members of the strangely static audience seem to need the exaltation to “Wake up! Wake up!” But it’s one that ushers Lanegan’s violently portentous imagery to the fore – and of that there’s plenty. Some reviewers have poked fun at Blues Funeral’s lyrical clichés (the current video for “The Gravedigger’s Song” doesn’t help by featuring a rose with actual teeth, actually gnashing in slo-mo). But live the repetition builds mythic resonance. Bells toll, waters rise. Hellhounds are ridden and mountains of nails burn. And in stand out moment “Riot in My House”, death’s metal broom comes sweeping through the evening to a tidy grinder groove.
So it’s a bit of a comic anticlimax, really, when the lights come on and a breezy announcement informs us that “Mark will now be signing records in the foyer”. The gruffest man in rock, it seems, is also a devil of a trouper.
Watch the video for "The Gravedigger's Song"
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