with Daniel Lanois
The Wrecking Ball Tour
23rd May 2014 8 pm
Emmylou Harris – vocals, acoustic guitar
Daniel Lanois – vocals, guitar, pedal steel guitar
Jim Wilson – bass , vocals
Steven Nistor – drums
Daniel Lanois set
Solo instrumental on pedal steel (JJ Leaves LA?)
Trio instrumental, led by pedal steel
‘A little improv’
Where Will I Be
All My Tears (Be Washed Away)
Going Back To Harlan
Every Grain of Sand
Sweet Old World
May This Be Love
Waltz Across Texas Tonight
Boulder to Birmingham
Pancho & Lefty
Calling My Children Home
Emmylou Harris was an honourary The Last Waltz participant, though on the video only, singing Evangeline, not at the concert. Daniel Lanois produced some of my favourite albums: Robbie Robertson, Yellow Moon by The Neville Brothers, So and Us by Peter Gabriel, his own Acadie, Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris, plus Oh, Mercy and Time Out of Mind by Bob Dylan which I love, being of the opinion for decades that what Dylan needs is a painstaking producer with a strong concept. Daniel Lanois has a sound. It’s distinctive and powerful (and the reason I didn’t list U2 above is that I don’t really like U2 much). During her set Emmylou said she had reached a creative stalemate, then she listened to Acadie and Oh, Mercy so got in touch with Daniel Lanois and it was the creative “kick” she needed. Wrecking Ball appeared in 1995, and this is the 19th Anniversary Tribute tour because they couldn’t wait for twenty, and it is matched by a deluxe edition reissue with 2 CDs and a DVD. Daniel Lanois is integral to the concept.
The day before the gig, I had my grandson (10 months) in the car, and though a cheerful sociable Leo, he was teething and decided it was time to protest the ignominy of being strapped in a car seat and really go for it. We were in heavy traffic, and I missed my iPod Playlist for kids and hit the CD player instead, bringing Wrecking Ball on. To our amazement, he shut up, listened to four songs quietly, moving his foot. Magic, so thank you to Emmylou’s magical voice.
Daniel Lanois’s set first. There was a five minute build up of his music, building inexorably over the PA till the lights went down and Daniel stepped on and sat at the pedal steel, and gave a melodic, solo instrumental masterclass on the instrument. It was a long, plangent overture to the evening. I felt echoes of themes to come.
Then without a pause, the melody shifted and Jim Wilson on bass guitar and Steven Nistor on drums joined him, for a trio instrumental, again led by Lanois on pedal steel. The soundscape fascinated me. The evening before I’d been to a jazz vinyl evening at an audio store. We listened to a side of Miles Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro on a state-of-the-art system. My copy, bought for 30p in W.H. Smith January Sale 45 years ago is mono. This stereo one had Tony Williams’ intricate drumming on the right. Ron Carter’s bass on the left, horns in the middle. Someone was saying that was classic, and it was studio record production that put drums and bass in the centre on record, then on stage. Back then, it had seemed sense to place drums at the side, because it meant the drums did not bleed into vocal mics, or horn mics, placed right in front of them. I always wondered why Levon Helm of The Band set his drums to the (audience) right. Daniel Lanois’s trio (he later announced them as The Emmylou Harris Band) did the same, in reverse. Drums were on the audience left, bass on the right and that’s where the instruments were placed on the soundstage too, with Lanois in the middle. It was fabulous trio instrumental work with good sound mix and volume. It might have been a tad too electric for half a dozen who departed for the bar. I was surprised that at Arts Desk Com they thought the sound poor:
QUOTE: I doubt these guys have ever played a bum note in their lives – but with what was coming out of the PA. The sound was so loud and distorted that for the first ten minutes many listened with hands over their ears. Still, a few minutes and several complaints later it returned to a more normal, if not particularly impressive, quality.UNQUOTE
It makes me reflect on times when I’ve found sound bad. I thought it was superb throughout. We were sitting about 40% of the way back, quite far to the left. It does show how halls have different spots. But Arts Desk is talking about the first ten minutes, which was all pedel steel. I think a few people were (a) unused to electric pedal steel guitar – it wasn’t loud, we’re talking a Vox AC30, a 60 to 100 watt bass amp, with sound direct, not blasting through the PA. Pedal steel is a very cutting sound, and it’s elided. I couldn’t hear any “distortion” which is an amplification effect, but he was bending and eliding notes. (b) the opening set was not to the taste of folk / light country-rock fans. That’s all. Back to the show …
The Messenger from ForThe Beauty of Wynona came third, with Lanois and Wilson singing together. Lanois had switched to guitar, a gold Les Paul either through a Vox AC30 or a Fender practice amp next to it. Fire fron Shine was fourth, another with two vocalists. My thought was that Lanois has produced for some outstanding guitarists in his career. What I hadn’t realized was that in a cutting contest he would have nothing to fear from any of them. The playing was liquid gold.
My favourite came next, Jolie Louise from Acadie sung straight, strumming at the front with minimal accompaniment. Lively, short, excellent.
The set closer was announced as “ little improv.” though it started as a vocal. I couldn’t place it, but it has an early line about from Los Angeles … (If you know it, let me know and I’ll change this bit!) but they only did a couple of verses before switching to the improv, which was, dare I say, Hendrix inspired, with astonishing drums from Steven Nistor (who has quite a task, as Brian Blade, one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen, plays on many Lanois original versions). It was long, much of it had Lanois with his back to the audience, facing his control boards, and took me back to 1967 or 1970. Guitar hero playing is something I avoided for years, but this was tasteful as well as powerful and technically brilliant. It might well have been a shock to the folkie / light new country fan.
The interval was longer than we expected, and when we retook or seats after the pee and a wander about, we still had time to listen to an entire side of Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger (a fine choice) over the PA. Emmylou’s guitar tech was tuning her guitar, and a guy in baggy grey overalls and baseball cap was setting up Lanois’s stuff … except it was Daniel Lanois in disguise, rumbled by an audience member who went to shake hands with him.
The whole album show concept is growing. Paris 1919 by John Cale, Asia by Asia, Smile by Brian Wilson, Now We Are Six by Steeleye Span. It certainly makes doing the setlist easy, and I note that including encores, it was the same set as on earlier gigs exactly. Wrecking Ball works in sequence too. John Cale had to shift Macbeth to the end, because it didn’t fit, and Steeleye Span were left with their natural closing song in the middle.
Emmylou Harris is noted as an interpreter rather than a writer, which is a benefit on a whole album show, because while you have the unifying effect of one production style/ line up, you have the variety of mining so many great catalogues: Steve Earle for Goodbye, Julie Miller for All My Tears, Kate & Annie McGarrigle for Going Back to Harlan, Neil Young for Wrecking Ball, Bob Dylan for Every Grain of Sand, Lucinda Williams for Sweet Old World, Gillian Welch for Orphan Girl, Lanois for Deeper Well and Blackhawk. And Jimi Hendrix of course for May This Be Love, surely, given his set, a Lanois choice.
The whole album concept caused a bit of a fuss in this one. A Judas! / Manchester Free Trade Hall moment, if you like. After Where Will I Be (for which Emmylou didn’t play guitar) she announced the concept. I thought everyone knew the concept, but I was wrong. After the fourth song, Neil Young’s Wrecking Ball, a man stood up and started shouting in the third or fourth row. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but Emmylou could, and politely (calling him ‘sir’) said that this was billed as the Wrecking Ball Tour so yes, she would be going through the album in sequence, so the content should not come as a surprise to him, and if he would care to be patient, there would be some other songs later. She’s a total professional, and handled it with aplomb, but anyone is rattled by that kind of audience attack. She announced Going Back to Harlan next with a tribute to the McGarrigle sisters who wrote it, and declared that so many of her ten favourite writers, including Lanois, are Canadian. Beautiful song, beautifully taken. But when she started Deeper Well (her co-write with David Olney and Daniel Lanois) we were reminded that an arsehole is indeed an arsehole, because the protester and his companion, got up and pushed their way to the aisle and marched out. Yes, they didn’t choose the gap between songs, they waited till the middle to cause maximum hissy fit disturbance to audience and performers.
To a degree, the Brighton Festival Programme and the ticket is slightly to blame. I read the music press, I knew she was doing the Wrecking Ball tour, and Daniel Lanois was billed with her, which makes it pretty clear. However the programme does not title it The Wrecking Ball Tour (as it is titled everywhere else) and says “she mines 26 albums and four decades of singing and songwriting for this standout concert” So there is a possibility that someone who expected early 70s Nashville with a folky bent could be surprised to find that a performer had grown, developed and changed over a forty year period, though that is no excuse for standing up shouting in the middle of a concert, nor for making such a deliberately dramatic departure. I thought back to the days of Peter Grant. At a Led Zeppelin concert, such a display while they did a surprising (then) acoustic section would have been foolhardy. The audience response was to clap louder and demonstrate more enthusiasm to her to compensate. I got sore palms contributing.
I realize this could easily be a retrospective review of the 1995 album. Not a lot of point. The four piece band needed Emmylou on acoustic guitar, because it allowed Lanois to concentrate on his trademark fills rather than the chores of rhythm guitar. She joins in with the lads with gusto on the instrumental sections of May This Be Love too.
After Wrecking Ball they did the two opening songs from Lanois’s Acadie which were outtakes from the album: Still Water and The Maker. Both had Emmylou singing lead, though The Maker was close to a duet. They’re songs I’ve wanted to hear live for twenty-five years. Emmylou sang them beautifully, but both of us would have preferred more Lanois, especially on The Maker, an old favourite. They took the encore break at this point.
After the encore, two men walked in and towards the front seats. I don’t know whether these were just two innocents who’d been out for a qiuck pee, or our miscreants returning for the promised other stuff after sulking in the lobby for an hour. Anyway, the two expected essentials came: Boulder to Birmingham and Pancho & Lefty. Daniel Lanois went back to pedal steel, leaving her acoustic guitar playing up front in the mix, retiring to the subtle role of session pedal steel player rather than his trademark style.
Calling My Children home was sung as a trio. Lanois didn’t play. Emmylou and Jim Wilson kept it on track with quiet notes on guitar and bass. The second encore, introduced with a tribute to the writer, the late Jesse Winchester, was My Songbird, performed just by Emmylou with Daniel Lanois. Magic.
APART FROM THE CONCERT
The Brighton Dome, as was remarked from the stage twice, is a beautiful hall with a great sound. We protested for years about the swingeing NCP car park charges, just up the street … if it’s called the “Theatre Car Park” it should give concessions. It has now gone from the £25 we paid a few years ago to a fair £5.50 evening charge. Victory. But … it’s dumb. You are supposed to pay at the end. If you arrive after six, and it’s £5.50 for the evening regardless, you might as well buy your departure ticket on arrival. Maybe you can, but it’s not signed, and in many car parks you have only 5 or 10 minutes after paying to exit. So we stood in line for over 15 minutes to pay for the car park (one machine out of order) which when you face a 100 mile drive home, is more than irritating. I know we do everything better in Poole than Brighton, naturally. The theatre car park in Poole is now Pay & Display, so you pay in advance. But when it used to be “Pay on Exit” there were signs saying “EVENING RATE: you can pay the charge on arrival” and you could and the ticket was stamped 7 a.m. the next day. They also had extra pay machines in the theatre lobby. No queues.