Live Music + Gig Reviews

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan @ St George’s, Bristol

25 January 2007

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan

The genesis of Ballad Of The Broken Seas, written and arranged by Isobel Campbell with Mark Lanegan adding his vocals in America, always posed the question of chemistry. How would a studio-based project recorded by vocalists in different studio translate on stage? How well do they know each other? Would it gel?

They are a striking pair up on what was once an altar. Lanegan in his scuffed apparel, dark denim, a menacing presence. His frame and manor mark him out as dark avenger, Harry Powell in The Climate of The Hunter singing the Nick Cave song book. He struggles with the mike stand extending it up reach his height. Campbell looks slight, a furtive, benign jumble of June Carter Cash and classical musician. She is dressed in an emerald green ’50s frock and a fetching pink bow tied around her waist. A chair and a cello sit beside her position on the left of Lanegan.

Revolver opens the show but fails to really ignite. Lanegan’s voice is even deeper live, a low rumble. He grips the mike and stares out into space, his baritone as dark and bleak as a murder victim’s grave. It fills the empty spaces, the hidden hollows in this old church with ease. Campbell’s voice seems paper thin in contrast, getting lost in the wide open acoustics of the cold stone walls.

It wouldn’t be an issue if their vocals blended as sweetly as they do on record. The light and shade is missing, only Lanegan’s darkness seems to have turned up. The opening tracks are underwhelming. A combination of nerves, lack of familiarity and the difficult atmosphere of St George’s ruining any chance of building a momentum.

There is no audible communication between Campbell and Lanegan, they look lost, like a couple on a first date or an ageing partnership after one hell of a row. It gets worse. Lanegan keeps disappearing off stage. During one of Lanegan’s absences the gig starts to take flight. Reaching for a series of notes at the top end of her range and missing them, Campbell visibly relaxes. It dawns on her that she can take risks and fail. Fail and not be rebuked by the audience. Her confidence blossoms and the mood improves markedly. There is a lightness in her voice, a playful skip in her step.

Lanegan returns and they rattle through a couple of well chosen covers. Dylan‘s Little Sadie has been previously recorded by Lanegan and he comes alive during the delivery. The version of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood‘s Sand is enlivened by a funky little stylophone solo from Campbell. It helps that the stronger cuts from Ballad Of The Broken Seas are kept over to the end.

The Circus Is Leaving Town is tight and focused, the riff bouncing off the heads of the congregation. Honey Child What Can I Do finally delivers on the promise of the LP. The voices blend perfectly, they soar upwards alive with a passion. Then it’s over, a beaming smile from Campbell and a wave from Lanegan. A great end to an imperfect gig.

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