Soulsavers 2009 Live Reviews
Soulsavers have taken a peculiar career path. They began as an English production team, Rich Machin (who played guitar and keyboards onstage) and Ian Glover (who did not perform), that assembled downtempo electronica, brooding in minor keys, on their 2003 debut album, “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (San Quentin).
But in “It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s The Way You Land” (Red Ink), their second album, from 2007, they collaborated with Mr. Lanegan — the low-voiced singer for the grunge band Screaming Trees and, later, Queens of the Stone Age — and others in songs pondering God and sin. Mr. Lanegan appears throughout Soulsavers’ new album, “Broken” (Columbia), and collaborated on some songwriting. (The official billing for the concert was Soulsavers featuring Mark Lanegan, and the set included a song from his solo career, “Hit the City.”)
Along the way electronics have receded from Soulsavers’ music. Onstage Soulsavers were a band steeped in Americana, Southern Gothic-style, by way of Nick Cave. That meant hefty, unhurried songs that could turn into organ-chorded hymns, tolling drones, somber waltzes or blues laced with echoey psychedelia.
Rich Warren (from Spiritualized) on lead guitar made each solo sound as if it was painstakingly clawed out of silence: no long lines or quick runs, but clipped, jagged, distorted phrases and sustained notes that curdled into feedback. Mr. Lanegan’s voice avoided bravado; it was rough and haunted, desolate and unheroic. Sharing the vocals was the keyboardist Red Ghost (a k a Rosa Agostino), answering Mr. Lanegan or singing on her own with simple clarity.
Coming from clubland, and working in a willfully assimilated musical style, would make Soulsavers prime candidates to be ironists: dabblers and tourists in music that touches on grand questions of faith and meaning. But unlike Mr. Cave and Spiritualized, who have long visited similar terrain, Soulsavers don’t step back from their songs or hint at intellectual distance. They played a ZZ Top song, “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” as a chronicle of a pilgrimage, and their own songs reached for reverence and dread. No wonder they stayed so grave as they performed. Pleading for a chance at redemption, they looked and sounded as if they meant it.
Owl and Bear (music blog)
As it turned out, Redghost, the first act, was probably the highlight of the night. And that should say something, since her solo set consisted of smokey vocals over guitar loops, delivered to an audience that eventually resigned to chatter. She did, however, inspire me to coin a rule—let’s call it Harry’s Law—in which an audience will be politely receptive to solo artists, but if attention isn’t kept rapt, the audience will grow chatty in proportion to the setlist’s length. By song five of Redghost’s set, at least half of the show’s attendees were talking amongst themselves.
Jonneine Zapata, female Jim Morrison mixed with P.J. Harvey, came next. Zapata, while a great singer, was a little more scary than sexy, a little more dramatic than melo. Her band played bar fare, and the drummer could only play slow or everything at once, but the audience seemed to love it. As I watched, I wondered if she might decapitate a bat with her teeth, but the set instead peaked with a stripper-style strobelight—alcohol to her already lowered inhibitions. After the show, when Zapata had changed out of her pumps and into comfortable sneakers, she seemed totally normal, if not pleasant. For Zapata, a better balance of personality and performance must be struck before she will seem real—to me, anyway.
The same problem plagued Lanegan and Soulsavers; they warmed up the crowd for about one minute before the Frankenstein-sized singer lumbered onto the stage. Throughout the show, an aloof Lanegan did his thing—making sour faces as if the mic tasted like earwax—and turning his back to the audience between songs as if to withhold sex from a needy partner. O&B writer Ophelia later asked me, “Does he really hate life that much?”
I will say this, something I’ve always believed: Mark Lanegan’s voice is sublime. It’s no wonder that he has stopped working solo and now sells himself as a living, breathing musical instrument. Unfortunately, in this capacity, he’s about as exciting as a player piano.
And while the hulking beast’s vocal cords (among other things?) are probably 12? bigger than the average man’s, the usually reliable sound at the Casbah failed to lift his baritone above the din of Soulsavers’ overplaying; if there was expression in his singing, it was drowned out by three guitars and incessant soloing.
The rest of the band tried to look as menacing as Lanegan, but at best pulled off silly. I began to lose interest when the guitarist on stage right couldn’t get his lighter to work, threw his cigarette to the ground in raw anger, and then crouched in his corner for the rest of the song, oscillating in the nightmare of his craving. Before the next song, as the bassist across the stage fired up one of his own, the withdrawn guitarist made sad puppy eyes and mimed Can I borrow your light? but the already nic-fixed bassist ignored him.
Lanegan’s over-understated toughness led me to believe that he could’ve bashed the entire band’s heads together in one fell swoop, and no amount of cigarettes smoked defiantly indoors could change that. Meanwhile, the lead guitarist played excessively long and technically questionable guitar solos, making faces that were at times Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen and at others SNL-era G.E. Smith.
Soulsavers saved their best song—and the best song
of the evening—for last, the excellent “Revival”. Kinda
wish I’d seen it; it sounded full-bodied and harmonious—like
Lanegan’s best work—and the Casbah’s system sounded
good for the first time all evening. But I’d already made my way
toward the back, having had my fill of overwrought stage theatrics from
the band, and sourpuss scowls from Lanegan, who kept looking at me like
he wanted to fillet me.
Mark Lanegan was certainly not new to collaborations, and besides his immense body of work as a solo artist and with his original band Screaming Trees, he has teamed up with Queens of the Stone Age, Greg Dulli, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, and Layne Staley. Machin has long been a Lanegan fan and says, "Mark's work is some of my favorite and something that I find inspiring and it gives me other ideas."
Machin is so fond of Mark's work that Soulsavers have covered three Lanegan songs, including "Praying Ground" and "Sunrise," on their new album, Broken. "I enjoy doing cover tunes as much as I do doing our own stuff," says Machin. "Taking other people's work and reinterpreting it is something I kind of have fun doing."
Broken is the second Soulsavers album to feature Lanegan and also has several guest appearances including Mike Patton of Faith No More and singer-songwriter Will Oldham. The guest appearances fit in nicely with the songs without being overbearing and Machin was never worried about egos compromising the quality of the music. "They're all really cool at what they do, and I think they all kind of came in and just did what felt right for the song."
Soulsavers are currently on a tour that included a stop at the famed Reading and Leeds Festival in the U.K. The current lineup is ever-changing but Machin does not mind the ever-changing nature of the band. "I like it to change because that's what keeps it interesting. Some people just like to play with the same four guys and be really tight and, you know, they've played with each other for years and I can see the benefit in that. But I also like the freshness of new blood," he said. "In fact we always learn something from everybody that comes in, be it good or bad." Their current lineup features Machin, Glover, Lanegan, and newcomer Rosa Agostino, who goes by the stage name Red Ghost.
Soulsavers' Sept. 26 show at the Grog Shop saw the band performing songs from their two most recent albums as well as a couple of Lanegan-penned songs. A highlight of the night was the song "Rolling Sky," in which Red Ghost trades a wispy vocal melody with Lanegan's baritone hum all over a sturdy bass line.
Lanegan also sang "Kingdoms of Rain" from his 1994 effort, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. Soulsavers expanded on his original acoustic version and introduced electric guitars and keyboards to provide the perfect ambient backdrop for the haunting track.
Lanegan's sobering stage presence created a contemplative atmosphere in the room and he spoke only once between songs to thank the opening acts and the crowd for attending. Soulsavers closed the night with their 2007 single, "Revival," which includes the lyric, "Let this dark night be done." Based on the reaction from the crowd, no one wanted even a dreary night in Cleveland to be over so long as Lanegan was there to see them through it.