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Daniel Lanois At Amoeba, Monday September 8th 2014

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Daniel Lanois

Daniel Lanois was playing at Amoeba on Monday night and it was the store’s last free show of the year – yep, already! – but Lanois is a legend so I didn’t need any other reason to go there… He was also celebrating his new album ‘Flesh and Machine’ (released a month and half ago on ANTI-Records), and may be a new turn for his career. Let’s be clear, Lanois has produced about everyone playing music on the planet (Brian Eno, Robbie Robertson, Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Sinead O’Connor, The Killers…) and is behind landmark albums for U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but he also has been quietly releasing his own music since 1989.

The man has certainly what I would call a ‘look’, wearing an ACME black leather jacket, black cap, back sunglasses, with black Dr. Martens on feet, and huge rings on fingers, he looked like an industrial motorcyclist, and was directing an orchestra composed of four musicians, a talented young drummer a guy shadowing him behind the synth and knob machines and a bass player who was cultivating a Edge look, but may be it was just the facial hair and the black knitted hat.

But when I think about Lanois’ music, I mostly hear some atmospheric alt country sound with lots of guitars and a haunting pedal steel, not only because of his long association with country artists such as Willie Nelson or Emmylou Harris, but also for having seen him play on stage with alt-rock bluesy artist Rocco De Luca. However, this time it was a totally different game. If there was still a lot of this ambient pedal steel guitar, the core of the show was around twisted knobs, electronic beats, synths and yes, machines, but also isolated piano notes, deep bass lines, distorted guitar and real drumming. I totally get it, as the title was announcing it, it’s an attempt to reconcile flesh with machines, but at the same time, did Lanois really embark on the electronica wave? Be careful, Lanois is a real musician, he was not wearing a DJ cap at all, but may be he aspired at becoming closer to…Flying Lotus? Thom Yorke? Or even Mogwai?

The music was strange and adventurous, very atmospheric and certainly cinematic, with no vocals at all and mostly melody-free, the sort of tracks that let people puzzled for a while, and totally embody the over-used term soundscape. It was a trip into a futuristic land, or at least unknown country, it was spacey, even cosmic and hypnotic or more thunderous with real beats coming from his young drummer at the other side of the stage… For a long while, it was certainly much more about machines than flesh, and it was only when he was getting back behind the pedal steel that we were back to melodies with the famous Lanois sound resurfacing. He even managed to reconcile both on ‘Space Love’, a quiet and hypnotic track marrying steel pedal with electronicaI was standing next to a die-hard fan — he had told me before the show how much he loved Daniel Lanois’ work — and he was truly enjoying the show, not at all disconcerted at all by the new direction of the music.

‘Flesh and Machine’ is Lanois’ sixth solo album and if he is aiming for a new sound, ‘for something that’s never been heard before’, as the press release says, I would say it is not exactly the case, variations on these soundscapes have definitively been explored before, just like the fireflies-like noise effects on ‘Sioux Lookout’, which are still fascinating even though they don’t totally surprise anyone anymore. ‘Opera’ (I may be wrong as he wasn’t announcing the title of the songs) was the most thrilling ride of all the songs he played, a fast, epic, climatic and cathartic number, putting you through the effect of G-force at some point, that he stretched way beyond its usual 3-minute. For some reasons, most of this music put me in the mood for watching nature movies, showing flights over deep canyons, mountains and blue seas, and this says a lot about its cinematic power. If most of the music was more about atmosphere than melody, and seemed to be all about spontaneity and unpredictability, the slow-paced ‘Iceland’ and its piano notes was an interesting break into this abstraction, he said he named the song after ‘a place he had never visited’ … may be just like this new music.

This abstraction is certainly not for everyone, but they closed the show with a more conventional singing duo with guitar and bass, ‘Sweet Soul’ off Lanois’ 2005 ‘Rockets’ album, and this one had an almost QOTSA edgy-croony feel… Furthermore, a woman offered him flowers at the end of the show, which proves that he hadn’t alienated any of his fans…

More pictures of the show here.

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