Give me bourbon and bubblegum
Mark Lanegan's power can conquer even the dullest venue
Sunday September 5, 2004
Mark Lanegan Islington Academy, London N1
In the London flat where I have been staying for the past two weeks, I
have been woken every morning at five o'clock by the sound of the man
downstairs retching. It's a religious thing, apparently - he is voiding
his soul of demons. I get my own back each night by playing Mark Lanegan's
album, Bubblegum, at top volume. This, too, is the sound of a man voiding
his soul of demons. Is it religious? Well, not exactly. But you could
argue that Lanegan is the leader of a small cult.
What meagre fame he has accumulated over the years has been mostly by
association. He was friends with Kurt Cobain and the Gun Club's Jeffrey
Lee Pierce, both of whom died young. Lanegan, despite a prodigious drugs-and-drink
intake, survived. Read any article about him now and the word 'survivor'
is bound to crop up. He has an appearance and a voice to match this label:
a beat-up but noble face; a deadpan, laconic manner; and a vocal style
reminiscent of Tom Waits.
He began his career 18 years ago as singer with grunge band the Screaming
Trees, but since 1990 has produced a steady flow of solo albums, as well
as joining, albeit briefly, Queens of the Stone Age, many people's choice
for band of the decade. Two members of that (now defunct) band - Josh
Homme and Nick Oliveri - turn up on the inappropriately named Bubblegum
, which came out last month. But they are far from the only guests: PJ
Harvey, Greg Dulli, formerly of the Afghan Whigs, and Izzy Stradlin and
Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, among others, also lend their support.
None of these luminaries appears at Islington Academy on Wednesday, but
that does not lessen the show's impact. Indeed, it perhaps intensifies
it; with an unshifting (and unglamorous) line-up flanking Lanegan on stage
- and the light-show so dim that they are all rendered as silhouettes
- the focus is solely on the music.
In terms of songwriting, Lanegan has moved far away from the two-dimensional
conventions of heavy rock towards a more mysterious, blues-soaked landscape.
The opening two songs - 'When Your Number Isn't Up' and 'Hit the City'
- illustrate this well. The first, about a man in a hotel room on the
edge of death, is sparse and glowering, and would fit neatly on Nick Cave's
album of piano ballads, The Boatman's Call. The second, an erotically
charged rock number, could almost be a lost single from PJ Harvey's Stories
from the City, Stories from the Sea.
Islington Academy is not the most atmospheric of venues: lousy acoustics
and the bars brighter than the stage. It is to Lanegan's credit that he
overcomes these handicaps to give a performance which, even if only fitfully,
makes you believe you are in a bourbon-smelling shack somewhere near the
The songs, though all of a high quality, are a bit up and down in terms
of the intensity of their delivery. For me, there are three high points.
The first is 'Resurrection Song', a ghostly three-minute ballad from 2001's
Field Songs, here prolonged into something immense, slow-burning and mesmerically
repetitive. The second is a tender cover of soul singer Brook Benton's
straightforward love song, 'I'll Take Care of You'.
The third is 'Methamphetamine Blues', which, on record, sounded not much
more than a generic industrial-grind rock song. Here, however, it is transformed
into an awesome steamroller of noise; a crucible of desire and fear, sex
and death; the sound of Lanegan's demons escaping into the night.