With Pink Floyds Roger Waters bringing The Wall in its entirety to Columbus, OH, on Friday night, its perfectly understandable if Thursdays Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan show registered as a mere blip on the radar of local concertgoers. But those who did choose to pregame Thursday evening at the Ohio State-affiliated Wexner Center were amply rewarded with a type of show that not even The Wall could completely cast its long shadow over. Rather than witnessing a rock spectacle, the audience was treated to an intimate glimpse into a friendship and chemistry that has developed over the course of three innovative and poignant records.
New York-born singer-songwriter Willy Mason, who sang with Campbell on the recently released Hawk, opened the show with a half-hour acoustic set. Masons songs spoke of disconnect and hard times in short, vivid burstsalmost as if he had taken brief poems or images collected in a notebook and set them to melodies; they didnt quite feel like complete songs, but many managed to capture a feeling or touch upon a nerve. However, what was most startling about Mason, who is only 25 years old and could have easily passed as an Ohio State student, is that his voice possesses the command and world-weariness of a man twice his age, and it seems so natural and authentic. If he continues to find his voice as a songwriter, Mason may be one to keep an eye on.
The unique setup of this show is also worth noting. The Wexner Center has a series of Stage Onstage concerts for which a performing stage is erected on one end of the theaters proper stage. The audience actually watches the gig from the regular stage, and the stage curtains are drawn, which creates a small club atmosphere. Its like were all on a stage, joked Mason. I mean, whos the audience? So, instead of being seated and removed, fans were able to be within a few feet of Campbell, Lanegan, and the band, which made for a more intimate performance.
With the backing band already playing, Campbell and Lanegan entered the stage together, nodded to each other, and sank into the spare haunter We Die and See Beauty Reign, a perfect introduction to the voices fans had come to hear. The two moved in workmanlike fashion through the early part of the set, delivering faithful renditions of the chugging, pulsating You Wont Let Me Down Again and the ominous, teetering Come Undone, the latter being one of the many songs Campbell added an eerie and chilling touch to with her signature cello.
The unlikely pairing of Campbell and Lanegan (the vocal equivalents of a pixie and a grizzly) is no less mysterious in person. Their onstage communication is limited to a series of nods, squints, eyebrow raises, and the occasional wry smile from Lanegan. But while they share a body language of their own and an equally laconic stage presence, each is quite different at the microphone. The statuesque Lanegan holds the mic in a death grip, contorting his face in pained expression as if excavating sounds and notes buried deep within. Campbell, on the other hand, is deathly calm and serene, singing with her eyes closed as if in a room by herself. As odd as this pairing may appear, the result is an achingly beautiful marriage of distinctive voices.
Campbell and Lanegan finished the first segment of the set with the gorgeous stretch of Honey Child What Can I Do?, Ballad of the Broken Seas, and The Circus Is Leaving Town. On each, Lanegans rugged croon dripped sweetly while Campbell complimented him perfectly on vocals, cello, and tambourine. Campbells willingness and ability to step back and accentuate Lanegans lead with her vocal and instrumental accompaniment made these arguably the finest performances of the evening.
After the final notes of The Circus Is Leaving Town, Lanegan thanked the audience and left the stage, and Campbell welcomed Willy Mason back to duet on No Place to Fall and Cold Water from Hawk and also to play one of his own originals. Mason delivered brilliantly on No Place to Fall, sounding like a young Townes Van Zandt and breathing a believable melancholy into classic lines like Im not much of a lover its true/Im here, then Im gone, and Im forever blue.
Before welcoming Lanegan back, Campbell took the opportunity to introduce the band and to sing her only solo number of the evening, the hypnotic To Hell & Back Again. Backed by straightforward acoustic strums and jangly percussion, Campbell closed her eyes, cradled the microphone, and whisper-sang a beautiful rendition. Campbell sacrifices a great deal of the spotlight to bring these compositions to life in concert, so it was a lovely moment to see her center stage.
During the interlude with Mason, Campbell had noticed what she described as a bassy reverb going on with the sound system. And, unfortunately, this was a problem that worsened and plagued much of the shows second half, as she and Lanegan would frustratingly take turns having their vocals buried in the mix. Lanegan was all but inaudible on the narrative Time of the Season, and Campbells soft tones were completely drowned out on amped-up, electrified blues romps like Get Behind Me and Ramblin Man. The vocal interplay between Campbell and Lanegan is the essential ingredient in nearly every one of their songs, so it was a shame to have otherwise phenomenal performances derailed by a vocal gone missing.
Still, despite the sound difficulties, Campbell and Lanegan managed to scrap together some late-set highlights. Come On Over (Turn Me On) was one of the best performances of the evening. A searing guitar part by Jim McCulloch added creeping muscle to the piece while Lanegans growl mixed with Campbells sultry come-hither vocals. The sparse and delicate Revolver returned the show to where it started with We Die and See Beauty Reign, and Wedding Dress, a song from Lanegans back catalogue, ended the evening with his favored brand of dead slow rock.
The water cooler talk around Columbus next week will likely be about Pink Floyd and not Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan. But while the genius of Waters and Gilmour may be the hot topic, I hope those fortunate enough to have been at the Wexner Center Thursday night will keep the unlikely duo of Campbell and Lanegan in mind as well.
We Die and See Beauty Reign
You Wont Let Me Down Again
Who Built the Road
Free to Walk
Honey Child What Can I Do?
Ballad of the Broken Seas
The Circus Is Leaving Town
No Place to Fall (Isobel Campbell w/ Willy Mason)
Cool Water (Isobel Campbell w/Willy Mason)
I Wish I Knew How to Say Goodbye (Isobel Campbell w/ Willy Mason)
To Hell & Back Again (Isobel Campbell)
Time of the Season
Come on Over (Turn Me On)
Get Behind Me
(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?