Mark Lanegan Band at Koko

Support: Lyenn| Duke Garwood
June 22, 2017 at Koko

The closing of this live set by Mark Lanegan and band, with a double Joy Division cover encore, was one of many high points for me of seeing the gravelly-voiced Screaming Tree and solo wanderer perform many times across nearly two decades. The choice of covers was just right in joining together different hemispheres of Lanegan’s career: with Joy Division also having united a jabbing guitar noise sound with forays into more keyboard-led electro worlds. The encore tracks were something to be extra grateful for, since I hadn’t imagined I was going up until about 24 hours before the gig when the intended reviewer unexpectedly required a substitute.

The evening started with Lyenn, a solo guitar and vocalist producing slow, hanging plonks of song, echoey, soul-baring, held in warm air. First he’d ‘forsaken happiness’, then he ‘may not return’ (so kiss him), woo, oo-oo, ooeeoo. He’d definitely heard of Jeff Buckley. In several of the songs there was some good minimal electrical sparks, with plenty of minor-key space to reverberate into, and the last song in particular had a strong thrum enough to match the vocals, at first hushed then building to an all out wooping roar.

Duke Garwood’s now customary support slot (before returning in the band for the main set) was one of the best I’ve seen him do, on stage wielding an instant blues growl from the guitar, expertly controlled as if the noise were an immaculately trained wild animal on a strict leash. In contrast or complement to Lyenn’s set, the guitar and voice switched, in the sense that the songs here seemed vehicles for the guitar playing, vocals at times half-spoken bluesy stock phrases, pegs for an accomplished, controlled guitar rumble that just kept rolling on out into space. The drummer was great, relaxed so it seemed like it was going to be all skittering fills but the heavy thuds all came in right on time, allowing the guitar to lean back and patiently sink in to a reverberating soak.  For a short while the two Smoke Fairies Jessica and Katherine joined as backing singers, adding a nice cloak of wordless harmony. Short segues between songs led to the impression that it was just a solid stream of throaty guitar sound pouring out, with Garwood subtly shaping, punctuating, and directing it as it flowed. Similar to Lyenn, it’s a short set with a clear trajectory to a fuller expansion into his sound.

The headline set started out with ‘Death’s Head Tattoo’, a great opener as it’s a roar out of the gate and then a first line, first word which has Lanegan growling all around the first syllable of “wild thing”. Over a simmering hi-hat, lines like “better the devil you know…” are delivered in a voice so low you hear it through your soles as well as in your chest and ears. ‘Gravedigger’s Song’ and ‘Riot in my House’ similarly hit the ground running, barrelling straight into tracks heftily backed up by the six-piece band, half of which are often on guitar.

The thousand balconies in Koko are overflowing with an evening exhale after reportedly the hottest few days in the capital for decades. ‘No Bells on Sunday’ is perfect for the afterwork feels, slower than I’ve heard before, almost elegiac. Next up is ‘Hit the City’, the first of three songs tonight from 2004’s Bubblegum, here with reedy swooping keys replacing the female vocals on the album. In his scarce few words between songs, Lanegan sounds a little hoarse (well, more than usual), but it doesn’t show in the songs except where it should. He might’ve hit the city, but it sounds like the city hit back, they slugged it out for several rounds before winding up in the bar for even longer.

We’re then returned to this year’s record Gargoyle, the blipping keyboards of ‘Nocturne’ followed by the irrepressibly entertaining ‘Emperor’. Its lolloping rhythm can’t fail to get shoulders going while allowing the fades and slides of Lanegan’s vocal lines to follow their own lazier trail. ‘Goodbye to Beauty’ slows things, all gentle chiming guitars and soft beaters on the floor toms, the odd low range piano chord stonked and left, bass taking it up and passing it on- it’s probably the moment of the evening where it would’ve been most appropriate for the gigantic disco ball to whirr into action.

There can seem like quite a contrast between eras in Lanegan’s solo discography, the barroom Americana of 1990s albums (well, up to 2001’s Field Songs) as against the more keyboardy records since 2012’s Blues Funeral, with Bubblegum’s heavier stuff stuck in the middle. Recent tracks ‘Beehive’ and ‘Ode to Sad Disco’ up next are both heavy on the guitars, their live incarnations taking a middle path between the rock and synthy styles, the latter getting a great reaction from the crowd as the zoopy harmonic lines snake around each other.

An upbeat but still poignant ‘Harborview Hospital’ reprises a similar tstststststststsss hi-hat from the set opener, moving into some lovely multi-instrumental jangling. It’s a great, great vocal line for this singer’s voice, starting out low but promising lower and lower scoops of melody out of this voice. As ever, Mark Lanegan has great stage presence despite seldom shifting from the trademark stance of one hand at the mic and one hand halfway down the stand, except to remove and replace sunglasses. Introducing the band members constitutes his longest speech of the night, but we’re happy to have him get on with the songs, of which 19 are showcased even before the encore. The oldest song of the night, ‘One Way Street’, allows some slight experimentation, looser phrasing allowing movement in such a careworn, well-loved song.

‘Head’ has a real crunch and bite, the lines ‘one of these mornings’ delivered with real energy- in fact the Bubblegum tracks tonight seem to be amongst the most energetic somehow, though the backing vocals repeating ‘pa-pow’ are mercifully low in the mix.

‘Deepest Shade’, originally a Twilight Singers track but included on Lanegan’s second covers album Imitations, gives a cinematic sweep, with the singer making the most of the elongated vowels in you-oo-ooo. There’s almost a note of loungey crooning at times across the set, giving full presentation to a fantastic voice while any hint of cheese is guarded against by an impeccable musical history (and not least, convincing tales of hard living). Another example is in the next song, where the O in ‘Floor of the Ocean’ is a fully marinated, tasted sound while the dibidibidibi keyboard line fits with the movie-chase-miming lyrics.

After another ballad-like track in ‘Torn Red Heart’, we get a fine edition of ‘100 days’, though, as at times throughout the set, the keyboards are a little overly amped in the sound, here the shrill whine is piercing rather than a reticent smoky backing haze. It’s also a bit of an abrupt shift into ‘The Killing Season’, starting off with a jolt of 80s style dancey sound, followed by ‘Death Trip to Tulsa’, which finishes off the main set with what to my personal taste seem like a couple of the lesser songs displayed tonight.

No matter though, as we get a short break and the band are back to end the night in style. I’d noticed someone mention the day before that ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ had made its way into the set, and assumed it would be the closer of the evening. This was a brilliant prospect already, that stunning song delivered in Mark Lanegan’s sombre deadpan growl. But in the event this led to a moment of weirdly fantastic confusion for me when the band struck up the intro to my other most favourite Joy Division song in the world, ‘Atmosphere’, and it took me a moment to place it. Both tracks were brilliantly done, and they neatly brought together all the threads of the set and the occasion: keyboard sprinkles and swoons, slightly dancefloor-oriented basslines, and a post-punk-like guitar backing. And of course, most of all, an emotional punch in the distinctive placement of syllables, telling powerful tales in plain but hard-hitting lines. “Is my timing that flawed?” No, along with the deep grain of the voice, it’s exactly on point.

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