The former Screaming Tree gives a stupefying performance but, despite crowd rumours, has no need of an ambulance

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Hard Dazed Night

Mark Lanegan Band

ISLINGTON ACADEMY, LONDON

Wednesday September 1, 2004

YOU COULD BE forgiven for fearing the worst. As 10 tracks from his best solo album Eubblegum and its immediate predecessors are rumbled through, Mark Lanegan stands stock still, as if dosed with melancholy, or nodding off. Black eyebrows glower over slitted eyes, giving no clue as to his thoughts. “One Hundred Days” sums up the mood, volume and speed rising in slow motion as the otherwise unmoving crowd start to nod to its mesmeric, morphine-like visions, until a cymbal crash jerks us suddenly awake.

Given the dangerous excesses of Lanegan’s old band, Screaming Trees, and his recent stint singing with the un-abstemious Queens of The Stone Age, it’s no wonder rumours of an ambulance being called backstage gleefully sweep the crowd. This is music played in quicksand, and seemingly with little participation from the Mark Lanegan Band’s most noted member. Even when he screams in “One-Way Street”, he stays withdrawn, still and unknowable, a black hole on stage. By the duet “Come To Me” ? with the heavily tattooed Shelly Brown as PJ Harvey’s stand-in, part of a band of seeming hippie and biker hard-cases? we’ve pretty much forgotten about rocking, as the music crawls to where Lanegan’s heartbeat must be.

“Resurrection Song”, then, couldn’t be better named. It signals the late arrival of the vibrant, bohemian romanticism that sets Lanegan apart from his grunge and stoner contemporaries, the lust for life that follows his more meditative, wandering moments. Guitars squall in a shrieking tempest that doesn’t shift him, the whole band instead bending into it. “Driving Death Valley Blues” next, and he’s finally awake, neck cords tensing as his great, gravelly voice roars, “I don’t wanna go cold turkey no more”, the words emphatic now, like a sickness being shrugged off. “Tell it to Jerry Lee,” he snarls on “I’ll Take Care Of You”, and The Killer would know more than most about this instinctive surge. On “Like Little Willie John”, Lanegan’s rasp dwarfs everything, his band visibly relieved as they grind into place around him. “Skeletal History” is a hard-edged punk stomp, controlled distortion dirtying its rhythm, while “Methamphetamine Blues” ends with Lanegan growling, a cappella, “I don’t wanna leave this heaven so soon,” the music, not the speed, surely now the meaning in his mind.

He walks jerkily back for an encore, in which “Message” roughly approximates pop music, then “Sleep With Me” shakes and rolls as his cigarette burns down. “Jesus Christ,” he exclaims, before finishing with “Fix”, yet another song toying with addiction and excess, and played as slow, deep dance music?trance as it might be imagined in an opium den or the desert, grunge-funk that sees the band stretch out impressively, as Lanegan leaves.

Whether his earlier languor was a brilliantly paced, playful ruse or true stupor, the effect has been to make the gig an organic psychodrama rare in rock now, Lanegan’s mood, music and life ? sometimes self-destructive, but always questing for transcendent experience ? impossible to separate. The real thing.