Portland

Live Review: Mark Lanegan at the Wonder Ballroom

Nick Hilden / May 30, 2012
Mark Lanegan at the Wonder Ballroom by Nick Hilden

The opening act had finished shortly before I walked through the main doors of the Wonder Ballroom, and although the roadies were still carrying equipment to and fro, the crowd had already begun to pack in tight near the front of the room. The wait for my first legitimate whiskey (I had been sipping on a flask during my walk to the show, but flask whiskey doesn’t count) was strangely brief. Generally this particular venue’s bar lines were a thing to be reckoned with during the moments between sets, but although the show had a predictably full attendance, the majority of the crowd had elected to forgo imbibements in favor of maintaining their proximity to the stage.

There was electricity in the air. The hours leading up to the eight o’clock door opening had been filled with a tremendous downpour that had turned the streets into rivers. Great rolling timpanies of thunder had followed the jagged purple fingers of lightening like the drum accompaniment to some ethereal tribal dance. It was as if Mark Lanegan had been carried to us by Zeus or Thor. With a voice such as his, it would not surprise me to learn that its bellow had reached the ear of the heavens.

I worked my way to the front, and, as I stood there trying to figure out how to balance the aforementioned whiskey with the camera, members of the band began to emerge from each side of the stage, so I drained the cup and flung it backward and braced myself to hold the camera steady through what would certainly be a tide of movement drawn this way and that way by the gravity of sound. Then a great noise of excitement leapt up as Lanegan took center stage. The room was suddenly thick with the distortion and drums of “The Gravedigger’s Song”, the first track off of Lanegan’s latest release, Blues Funeral.

His voice rolled through the cavernous room with a depth that made the early-evening thunder seem like mewling kittens. He stood almost motionless; a statue dressed in black emitting bassoon proselytizations that could be deciphered by creatures that spoke nearly any tongue. Those who croon the purest on this planet will always understand his call—the lions, gorillas, mammoths, whales, broken hearted lovers, soldiers struck mad amidst the din of battle, the boy murmuring sweet affectations to the smiling, blushing girl. There are monks high in the mountains of Tibet who, in all of their steps toward emptiness, dream of playing their dungchens with the fullness that Lanegan achieves in songs such as “Ode to Sad Disco”.

A statue dressed in black. Only his expression changed. Now he projects sorrow, now vehemence, now ennui, now stoicism. Eyes that penetrate love and death and time. Mark Lanegan has no need for stage antics. The man has presence. The Moon does not feel compelled to leap around the sky and impress us with hip shaking and fire. Neither does Lanegan. The fire bursts forth from his eyes, like man who is staring through the doorway to Hell. As for hip shaking, he leaves that to us.

He sings a few tunes from his backlog—“One Hundred Days” off Bubblegum being a personal favorite of mine—but for the most part the set is composed of his fresher material. Mark Lanegan proves with the dance-friendly aspect shared by many of these newer tracks that he is capable of staying with the changing landscape of modern music, and never for a moment does it feel contrived or cheap or anything of that sort. “Riot in My House” gets the crowd banging heads near the end of the set; a reminder that Lanegan was birthed from one of rock music’s golden (if slightly grimy) eras. The night closes out with “Methamphetamine Blues”—another of my favorites off of Bubblegum. You can check out the recording below.

Watching Mark Lanegan live is like seeing a great, roaring dinosaur that has somehow passed up extinction and has made itself some sort of tenuous home in this new epoch. His music is all bones and stones and ancient pillars, but there is plenty of flesh and guts and blood to be heard there as well. The heart still beats, if with a bemused and bitter grin. One gets the sense that he will go on howling for a good many years. The next time the sky is filled with the calamity of thunder and lightning, keep an ear tilted upward. Creatures like he are more likely to be found in storms than in temples.

 

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