Review: Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub @ Bowery Ballroom

Is it standard to write a brief apology when writing one of these blogs after a long absence? Well, I’ve been moving, so I apologize, my life has been in and out of boxes.  But I have left the cultural capital of the known universe (Jersey City) for a bit, and now reside in Clinton Hill Brooklyn.  Anyway, lets get to business.

Lanois 1

Daniel Lanois confuses me at times.  There is not much debate that he is one of the most significant producers of the last 20 years- He’s partially responsible for U2’s most memorable work and Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind, that’s enough for me to buy anyone a sandwich.  His sound on record is instantly recognizable.  It’s as if you took only the good parts of 1980’s production, matched it with a gritty guitar sound, add some New Orleans style drumming, and put lots of delay on everything.  I would say he has created one of the great American sounds, but he’s Canadian.

Now it may be just me, but his solo work seems a tad self indulgent as of late.  While I am a junky for any documentary style film about studio recording, his film “Here Is What Is”, a companion film to the album of the same name, definitely included some parts that were like “Oh Hey, here I am, and this is why I’m awesome, and I hang out with Billy Bob Thorton”.  Don’t get me wrong, the album has a few great tracks, and the production is amazing, but it seemed to just be an experiment of him making sounds for the sake of sounds.  Now, is there anything wrong with that?  Not really…but I still feel torn about it.  His aim does in fact seem true, he hires great musicians, is mindful of the vibe of the whole album, does not use any digital workstation trickery…but there is something that just doesn’t sit right with me.

Last week was a prime example.  My sister and I went to see Lanois new band Black Dub at the Bowery Ballroom.  The main draw, in addition to Lanois himself, was Brian Blade on drums.  Blade is a straight up monster, and there is not one person alive who could argue this.  He has some magical power behind the kit, no note ever seems excessive, any beat he plays just makes you smile.  The entire front row was made up of drummers just trying to get a look at Blade.  More on him later.  The band was fronted, and kind of seems like a Lanois inspired vehicle for, Trixie Whitley- a young vocalist, who’s basically a model.  This is where it gets weird and confusing.

Lanois 2

Have you ever heard that old story of how some oil tycoon in the 1930’s rented out Carniege Hall so his wife could play piano there or something?  I think this is kind of like that.  Whitley is a capable singer…but is she worthy of a band of the finest studio musicians in the world and a tour to support it?  I’m gonna come out and say no.  She sounds like one of those girls you hear playing a set at Kennys Castaways who has an overly put on, immitation soul voice, singing an octave below her natural range trying not to sound like the tiny white girl she is.  I felt betrayed slightly.  She sounded kind of like a Christina Aguilera immitator, and looked like Taylor Swift.  Really Lanois?

Brian Blade...in the shadows
Brian Blade...in the shadows

On the stage were 2 drum kits, a keyboard, giant bass rig, pedal steel and guitar amp.  Lanois played one beautiful guitar the whole night, just one delay effect on it.  Blade had his drum kit, the bassist (whose name ecsapes me but was fantastic) also kept it simple…..Trixie had her own drum kit, which she futzed about with for a few songs, a keyboard which she played one song on and was barely audible, and a badass black Les Paul, which she played for one song, and only plucked a few notes.   Again Lanois, really??  First off, you have Brian Blade up there.  The only other drummer who has added something while playing with him, is Jim Keltner on Time Out of Mind, thats because he’s one of the greatest drummers of all time.  But this girl who can barely play?  WTF man.  To his credit, Blade took it like a champ, I don’t think its possible for him to sound bad.  Any time she got on the kit, he just kept straight ahead time, throwing in a simple accent fill when necessary, he’s like Bacon, he makes anything better.

Lanois Steel

But there was really no need for her to have a drum kit, or guitar, or keyboard.  Focus on someones strengths, which in her case i think were backing vocals, when Lanois took the lead on his hit “The Maker”.  Not awkwardly trying to play guitar, drums, or keys, it just took away from whatever she had.  The thing is….LANOIS HAS TO KNOW THIS!  He produced Achtung Baby!  And Time Out Of Mind!  COME ON MAN!  I really dont want to say it…he has to just want to bang her, or has to be banging her, something in that realm.  You know how when two people are talking, and one clearly likes the other, and the other clearly does not like that person back, and its kinda painful to watch?  This seemed a little like that.  Lanois would move his mic stand towards her, she would kind of just stand in the same place.  He’d hug her and shit between songs, it just seemed a little weird. During the encore, they finished their song, the plan seemed to be for Lanois to finish the show solo with guitar, and he was like “you wanna sing one more with me?”  and shes all “nah, you finish this one, do your thing”.  That seemed the equivelant of, “you wanna go get a drink after dinner?”  “Nah I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I need to be up early, I’m just gonna head home”  Tough break Lanois, Tough Break.

I guess he’ll just have to take solace in his millions of dollars, incredible talent as a producer and musician, and worldwide acclaim.  It must be a tough life.

Now my dilemma only continued a few days after the show when I spoke to my sister to ask her opinion.  She enthusiastically loved the show.  Now, we both loved the band, but she enjoyed the vocalist far more than I did.  Im pretty confused right now, and Im questioning all I believe is right and holy.  Maybe I’m being too harsh on Trixie, maybe in any other context I would have enjoyed her performance.  But when someone is presented to you with such a powerful band, I feel its accurate to raise your expectations.  And that is the story I am sticking to.

22 thoughts on “Review: Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub @ Bowery Ballroom”

  1. Hi, interesting review. I come from a slightly different angle to the whole thing, as I knew more about the back story when I first heard Black Dub. Trixie Whitley is the daughter of the late Chris Whitley who Lanois championed in the early 90s. Indeed, both Daryl Johnson and Daniel Lanois, the original bass player with Black Dub played on his first album and a few of the other ones he released.

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Whitley
    http://www.kcrw.com/music/programs/gz/gz100213daniel_lanois_black_

    Therefore, there is a lot of history to the relationship. From what I know, she is actually married, so any questions of romantic entanglement with Lanois (or Brian Blade as I read in a drummer’s website!) do not seem to be justified in any way.

    Apart from this context, in terms of her voice and worth as an artist, your opinion is as valid as mine.

    I agree that she is very much developing as an artist and that her singing can sometimes sound a bit like mainstream soul. But (personally) her voice rings true to me, and I think she is still growing as an artist. When she gets it right, she does wonderful stuff. I wish she would do more whispery singing as in the song Silverado or when she harmonizes on The messenger, as I think she sounds really unique.

    I saw Black Dub in Brussels and, although it’s true that everybody else on stage (Lanois, Brian Blade and Jim Wilson) was an absolute master of their craft, Trixie Whitley showed that she was their equal in terms of musical soul and personality. To get her craft to the level of the others will take time, but to me the band is already worth listening to.

    Anyway, just my opinion. I suppose it’s just a matter of taste in the end.

  2. Well, then i do take back my assumption of romantic involvement. I just think its strange for someone at her level to be put in front of a group of that level, it just doesn’t compute. Lets see what happens in a few years…

  3. Welcome back Steve, I was worried that everyone had abandoned their blogs, which is a sad thing. Not true it seems.

    I found a YouTube vid with this crew and I can see the division in what people think about Trixie’s voice. On the one hand, shes certainly good enough to be a pro, and didn’t seem extremely out of place with the others. Looking at it logically she gets the job done.

    However, there is something I don’t like about the way she sings. It does sound fake, like she’s hiding her real voice behind that soul style. I suppose I don’t like soul singing in general, but these little growls and ‘yeah’s are distracting and I’d rather listen to someone else singing.

    Though I wouldn’t know she was white from listening to her if that is any merit to her.

  4. I think that the fact she is there attests to at least something worth investigating. Frankly, her pedigree (beyond being the child of Chris Whitley, who in my book did no wrong) includes having worked with Meshell Ndegeocello, Chocolate Genius, Robert Plant, Vernon Reid and quite a few others of demonstrable skill.

    She has facility with multiple instruments (master of none, but more than capable with several) and exhibits a whole lot more visceral seething I find more akin to Siouxie Sioux than Christina Aguilera. Her voice sounds unusually resonant, not forced, to these ears.

    Play Anon had what I thought was a more accurate take, “she cut a stylish, strong figure reminiscent of rock feminist icons like Patti Smith or Debbie Harry in her early Blondie days.” http://playanon.blogspot.com/2010/02/black-dub-magic.html

    It almost sounds like you wanted to sell her short because the surface appearance seems so odd.

  5. I LOVE Black Dub! I got to see them play in New York a couple weeks ago and the performance gave me chills. Trixie’s voice and Daniel’s guitar combine for an unforgettable experience. I can’t stop listening to the album either! It’s addicting!!

  6. The fact that you didn’t know she was Chris Whitely’s kid pretty much invalidates what you have to say.

  7. I remember seeing Trixie sing back up for her dad at Brownies(RIP), in NYC, back in 1998. Which means she was about 10 or 11 at the time.

    The girl can sing and just cause she’s all purty don’t mean she ain’t paid her dues.

  8. I think you miss the point.

    Trixie Whitley is legit. Her Dad, who was produced by Lanois is an icon that a generation simply missed. She has a soulful voice, can sing live out of the gate and is pretty good looking,; is that why you bash he singing. The CD has Lanois signature trappings all over it and he is again a genius. Period. Discussion over. His legacy is Hall of fame…not bad for a poor Quebecois

    You do have it right about Blades. he is just outstanding and is Always, always in pocket with the band.

    I would use your blatant lack of knowledge on the band as a “learning Moment”and not post such an obvious attempt to be the “one” who does not get Trixie as your focal point for discussion.
    Peace

  9. We have had disagreements about female vocalists in the past (i.e. Norah, Regina…ew), so I can see how her style is not something you would enjoy, however, I agree that there is something disingenuous about her voice. I think she’s trying to sound older than she is and its making her sound forced. I tried listening to various songs and her gratuitous use of “yeah”‘s and “uh”‘s made me consider Googling to see if she has turrets. I think she has potential and I respect Lanois doing her a solid, but not yet. And honestly, who cares who her father is…I mean seriously, where the hell is Julian or Sean Lennon right now? Bitch, please.

  10. I had the luxury of hearing her before looking at her. People here seem to be very superficial. There is no way to judge a person’s octive by looking at them.. ha ha. Pedigree too good, not good enough.. ha ha.

  11. I listened to Black Dub as a music lover not knowing much about the band until later. I think the album is very good. Trixie’s voice is fantastic regardless of her Dad or anything else.

  12. Hi there, I really enjoyed your review. I am much like those drummers you referred to stationed in the first row: I’ll pay attention to any project Brian Blade is involved in. After listening through Black Dub’s first album, I have to agree that Whitley is not quite meeting the bar these other musicians set. I often find myself wishing she would stop singing and just let the other 3 go at it.

    By the way, Blade is even more used to playing with another drummer than you might imagine: Josh Redman’s latest record, “Compass,” featured Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson playing across from each other on 5 of the 13 tracks.

  13. Hi, this is the most embarrassing piece of writing I’ve seen in quite some time… you really need to change the title of your blog to “I blog my prejudice”.
    Now, when someone asks why there are still more male musicians than female, I’ll just point them to this and say: “cause you have to put up with shit like this”.
    See, I’m not into Whitleys music my self – but to disregard the possibility that Lanois et al got a kick out of this girls’s music anf just wanted to bang her is…. embarrassing.
    “Really, Steve?”
    PS: Only discovered that you are a sound engineer after I wrote this, now it all makes perfect sense, you guys perfected the art of keeping the boys’ club well locked up

  14. No no Steve, you’re quite right with this review. The milquetoasts can defend this crap all they want, but its clear there’s a mismatch in talent, originality, and skill with this lineup. I would say that quite to the contrary of some of the most annoying comments above, the fact that you *didn’t* know whose daughter she was makes you in fact objective -which many here clearly aren’t (giving someone a talent pass because you like their daddy is exactly the kind of shit that provides a platform for mediocre music, i.e. this girl’s adolescent singing). She reminds me of the other disingenuous soulless white girl ‘neo soul’ hack, Sia. I’ve noticed KCRW can’t stop sniffing her panties for some reason. Apparently there’s a market in ‘white girls with a sonic faux finish who’d have you believe that they’re not from the ‘burbs (or Belgium for that matter), or most importantly, that they’re white’. I suspect this demographic is the Crate and Barrel 40/50 something crowd who haven’t heard anything with edge since the 80’s when they may have had an Eno record or something. There are amazing female singers out there -who don’t have semi famous musician dads. Dan Lanois could’ve easily found one or several. Instead he’s wasting my time with this junk. Also Dan, thanks for recycling drum tracks from Belladonna on this record. Also bullshit in my handbook.
    And the ‘boys club’ comment above is laughable and cheap. Pick on me instead Joe. Dare ya.

  15. Thank you B. I was in fact drafting a post in defense, making some of the very same points. No one gets a pass because of who they’re related to, I don’t care what race/sex/species you are, as long as it sounds like you mean it. I just don’t get that feeling from Trixie. Lanois is capable of so much more. I didn’t know he recycled Belladonna drums, perhaps he really is getting lazy these days.

    Joe, I am quite offended at the sexism comment, that’s total BS, and I will give you my official reply in an upcoming post.

  16. For Steve to have written in a “sexist” manner, he would have had to judge the singing based upon a previously held notion of (a) female singer/s.
    On the contrary, he made quite clear his objections to her “sound”/capabilities, and then went looking for a reason as to why she is there.

    Why is that sexist? If you are convinced that the artistic merit is not the reason, then there is nothing sexist about finding the right reason in “romance”. It’s the direction of the argument that matters.
    Not being aware of her family background gave no reason to think of the third possibility:
    DL is doing her a favor because of who her father was.

    There is nothing wrong with not being aware of that fact, and so there was no “sexism”.

    Doing Webster Hall show, see for myself — and ONLY because Jerry covered “The Maker”, if he thought highly of it, I’m interested — sort of the Blade argument above.
    BTW, all that drummer talk above: Kreutzman and Hart?

  17. I get the feeling you don’t know what your talking about. Check out the Little Desk concert on PBS. Just Trixie and Lanois. That’s all they needed. The others aren’t even necessary.

  18. Hi,

    you’re right in your last to paragraphs about Lanois (in general) – it’s backed up by people that can know. But that’s hardly Trixie’s fault, now, is it? She does stuff on her own too, live, easily found on youtube. Some of it, methinks, is pretty f***** good, pardon my French. E.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdWm-4x3D90 .
    Poor sound. Mibbe not technically perfect. And if I’m not mistaken, her own song. Judge for yourself. Hope you can enjoy it, ’cause I most certainly can :-)

  19. Um, that’s a snarky kind of opinion of Trixie Whitley, the daughter of late guitarist Chris Whitley. This woman is an accomplished musician whose voice and stage presence is evolving. Daniel Lanios earns mad props for the body of work he’s produced over a lifetime. You, my friend, come off kinda ignorant.

  20. Um, that’s a snarky kind of opinion of Trixie Whitley, the daughter of late guitarist Chris Whitley. Daniel Lanios earns mad props for the body of work he’s produced over a lifetime.

  21. Here we go again, judging (and trying to de-throne) a woman because of her looks… or more specifically, because she’s a woman. And it goes either way, whether the woman is “attractive” or “not attractive.” Same thing going on in politics, media, wherever women find their own power. It’s a way of distracting and subtracting from their talent and power. Because that is threatening to others’ egos. This woman is standing in her own power, has an amazing voice, a strong heart and soul, AND she is beautiful. Might be threatening to both men and women to see a woman who has it all. It takes courage to do what she does anyway. I think it’s great that Daniel Lanois or whomever is championing her. How about putting people UP instead of down? That would be a new way in the world.
    From,
    A woman who sees the power in this woman. Brava.

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