Live Report : Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan : The Cedar, Minneapolis, MN

There’s something about the high school gym vibe of The Cedar that forces performers to work the body. No luxury accommodations, no curtain and fewer seating options than your average church basement, it’s a stage that has witnessed few flashy knockouts over the years, and a somewhat unlikely venue for the first ever Twin Cities appearance for Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan.

On paper, Campbell and Lanegan are a risky proposition, not unlike asking Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf to share a microphone. Lanegan cut his teeth during the first wave of grunge with the Screaming Trees, and is known for his sullen intensity and subsonic vocals, traits which have served him well in recent collaborations with Greg Dulli and QoTSA. Campbell is basically the anti-Lanegan: a cello-playing, twee-voiced urchin who first gained acclaim as Stuart Murdoch’s feminine foil in the early years of Belle and Sebastian. And yet, here they are, three records of breathtaking music noir, and still silencing critics who wrote off Campbell as nothing more than a Murdoch day-laborer.

Regardless of his material, Lanegan is a captivating performer; a golem-like presence with the microphone in a death grip, focused only on preventing his demons from dragging him back to their hellish realms. Earlier in his career, most assumed his voice would falter with time, rendering him a flannel-flying Leonard Cohen, but the opposite has come to pass. His instrument remains rich and sonorous, rendering songs like Campbell’s The Circus Is Leaving Town nothing short of stunning.

Given Lanegan’s demeanor the mic, it’s far too easy to undervalue the contributions of Campbell. But make no mistake, this is her show, and one in which she has turned traditional gender-roles in music on their ear. As the arranger, producer and primary songwriter of the duo’s three records, she has demonstrated that traditional music remains malleable, and in her hands, these threadbare genres are re-born with elements of chamber pop and R&B. Imagine Cher telling Sonny she wanted him to do another vocal take, or Tina pushing Ike’s performance in the studio. Yet, here was the charmingly impish Campbell, queuing the band and swapping out male vocalists (opener Willy Mason sings a couple numbers on Hawk, and reprised these performances live), while handling her own vocal and cello duties.

The setlist drew generously from the duo’s three records, and their crack backing band provided very solid, yet unobtrusive, performances. Singles You Won’t Let Me Down Again and Ramblinman garnered the loudest response from the audience, but by-and-large, the lesser-known tracks shone brightest. Mason’s take on Townes Van Zandt’s No Place To Fall was sharp, even if he lacks Lanegan’s almost frightening intensity. Uptempo numbers like Honey Child What Can I Do? and the holiday-themed Time Of The Season were well-received, but for me, the more shadowy material has always been the focal point. Come Undone proved to be the musical equivalent of hard-boiled detective fiction, while footslogs through Revolver and the aforementioned The Circus Is Leaving TownFree To Walk left even the most disinterested audience members rapt. And even though I knew the cover of Free To Walk by Jeffrey Lee Pierce (Gun Club) was coming, nothing could have prepared me for Campbell and Lanegan’s stirring rendition. When all was said and done, though, the centerpiece of the evening was Back Burner, a deep track from 2008’s Sunday At Devil Dirt (that would have fit nicely on Lanegan own Here Comes That Weird Chill) which takes on positively Lynchian life of its own in the live setting. I won’t even attempt to describe it, and instead recommend that you track down the Live At The Barbican CD the duo is selling at the merch table.

Free To Walk (Gun Club cover) by luftmensch11

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan – You Won’t Let Me Down Again

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan On Tour
10-26 Seattle, WA – Nemo’s
10-27 Portland, OR – Doug Fir
10-28 San Francisco, CA – Great American Music Hall
10-29 Los Angeles, CA – El Rey

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