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.