Music is a powerful influence on our lives and the bands we love and the songs they write become soundtracks to entire eras, defining our very existence. Dust by Mark Lanagan‘s Screaming Trees is one of those records. Too young and still enjoying the extravagancies of the hair metal scene when they originally formed, it wasn’t until this album was released in 1996 that I really became aware of the band and in particular their fiercely enigmatic vocalist Mark Lanagan. His baritone vocals provided deep, seductive layers to the psychedelic undertones present on the record, providing distinctively different pleasures compared to the other grunge acts they were regularly compared with. Despite this deep appreciation of the Washington state native and the countless projects he has contributed to over the years, I had not seen him live until tonight.
It is always an aesthetic pleasure to see any act perform in Manchester Cathedral. The tragedy of Noah and the Whale’s First Days of Spring proved to be a particularly cathartic experience within these ecclesiastical surroundings several years ago and the transcendency of Mark Lanagan’s songwriting suggested that this building of cold, solid stone set within its deep cavernous chambers was the perfect environment to perform in.
Arriving in almost complete darkness and remaining there for the duration of the show, Mark Lanagan opens up the evening’s extensive setlist with When Your Number Isn’t Up. Dark and ominous, the track has the portentous visual qualities of a sombre Edward Hopper painting and the stark musical accompaniment is a particular feature of the show, which promises an intimate ‘evening with Mark Lanagan’. The first handful of songs certainly maintain the creeping, graceful style of this opener and the subtlety of these opening tracks is complimented by Duke Garwood’s baleful guitar, adding depth to the stunning work of Jeff Fielder on the Gibson SG. Garwood provided a brief set of his own material in support moments before, but he appears more at home providing these understated contributions to Lanagan’s material. The primal aggression of The Gravedigger’s Song changes the dynamic slightly but essentially this is an intense and intimate evening with one of America’s most expressive songwriters around.
Tonight’s show is also notable for the number of diverse covers performed by Lanagan. Along with The Leaving Trains song Creeping Coastline of Lights, Lanagan provides a dark interpretation of Brook Benton’s I’ll Take Care of You, but the real surprise for this Mark Lanagan virgin came towards the end of the main set when he launched exquisitely into Kurt Weill’s Mack the Knife. Included on 2013’s Imitations album, Lanagan’s expressive, dulcet tones successfully enhance the dark undertones of the song and these chiaroscuro surroundings, with only blood red splashes of colour illuminating the stage appear to be the perfect setting for this kind of cover. The Sinatra connection is maintained with the next song. The sedate pace of You Only Live Twice establishes a graver dynamic to the Nancy Sinatra song and this solemn approach is something which the contemporary bond films could certainly benefit from.
Already eighteen tracks in when Mark Lanagan returns for the encore, the hugely appreciative crowd are treated to six more completely compelling tracks full of satisfying musical subtleties from the likes of Driver and Mescalito along with stark I Am the Wolf. The biggest cheer of the evening is reserved for Halo of Ashes however. The track is the lead song on Dust, the aforementioned Screaming Trees album released two decades ago. Performed with incredible poise this evening to go along with the coarser vocals that Lanagan has developed over this period, the track is an incredible way to end the evening and it’s reception surely demonstrates the significant place this amazing singer-songwriter has in the hearts of music fans everywhere.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto