Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan at the Cedar, 10/23/10

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Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
October 23, 2010
The Cedar Cultural Center


On one of the busiest nights for music in the Twin Cities in recent memory, the choice of which of the numerous high-profile shows I was going to attend on Saturday night was always going to be a difficult one. In the end, the fact that Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan were making their debut local appearance at the Cedar Cultural Center on their first U.S. tour together proved impossible to pass up, and I was rewarded for my choice with a smoldering, stellar 90-minute set filled with songs that echo the dusty Americana that the group is now seeing together on the road for the first time.

The splendid four-piece backing band (which featured both the bassist and drummer from Giant Sand) set the groove for the ominous "We Die And See Beauty Reign," which kicked off the set as both Campbell and Lanegan strode on stage together. And with just a nod to each other, they began to sing as their contrasting voices meshed wonderfully in the tiny room. Their intriguing musical dichotomy has been heavily scrutinized over the course of their three albums working together, but the chemistry and creative spark is certainly there between these two disparate figures, and that easy rapport was on full display throughout their captivating performance.

I was a bit worried when Lanegan seemed unnerved right as he stepped on stage, shaking his head angrily at the sound man. He tends to be a somewhat capricious performer, and I didn't want there to be any early complications that would ruin the show. But it turns out he just thought the lights were too bright on stage, and they were quickly lowered so that he remained shrouded in the shadows throughout the rest of the performance. It's such a true pleasure to hear Lanegan sing, no matter what project he's involved in, but he never appears comfortable on stage, gripping the mic stand in a death grip that seems to be the only thing keeping him from fleeing the stage. But Isobel's charming music and penetrating lyrics have clearly resonated with him, and he sang these songs with a passion and intensity that made them his own. And while Campbell's angelic voice would occasionally be lost amidst Lanegan's gravelly growl, she proved to be the perfect contrast and compliment to his raspy voice, providing a delicate lilt that gave the dark songs a lighter edge.

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Campbell also played cello on some of the songs, giving "Come Undone" and "Ballad Of The Broken Seas" a nice string accompaniment that only augmented the work the band was doing behind them. These songs, which are a bit stark and simple on record, were given a new breadth and pulse in the live setting by these talented musicians, allowing Campbell and Lanegan to completely lose themselves in the music. But it did take them a while to fully relax, finally smiling at each other after the sixth song of the night. And, after a lovely version of "Honey Child What Can I Do?" Campbell spoke to the audience for the first time, thanking us and mentioning that "This is our first time in Minneapolis. It's good to be here."

Mark also thanked the crowd while he left the stage  briefly, following a smoldering version of "The Circus Is Leaving Town," that was one of the set's many highlights, as Willy Mason came out to join Campbell on a few numbers. Mason, who opened the show with a lovely solo acoustic set that highlighted both his strong songwriting and sharp wit, lent his considerable talents to the duo's cover of the Townes Van Zandt classic "No Place To Fall," which is also featured on Campbell and Lanegan's new record Hawk. Isobel seemed to relax considerably with Mason on stage, laughing a bit during "Cool Water," and joking about how the stage was so big it felt like Jeff (the guitarist) was playing down the street. Their mini-set together ended with a Mason original, the gorgeous "I Wish I Knew How To Say Goodbye," which Campbell followed with a haunting version of "To Hell And Back Again" that she sang solo.

Lanegan came back out for a simmering version of "Back Burner," that was another highlight of the set. Their music together is quite understated and fraught with tension, and that tenuous balance was on display throughout their set, with few words shared between them, but knowing looks and nods were all it took to communicate where they wanted the songs to go. Campbell also started laughing during "Time Of The Season," apologizing afterwords by saying "That's actually a sad song, I don't know why I was laughing." And, before their fantastic version of "Come On Over (Turn Me On)," Isobel explained the laughing by claiming, "I think it was because of the rugs-I didn't feel like I was on stage." To which Lanegan jokingly replied, "If you say so." It was nice to hear a bit of back and forth between the two vocalists, who otherwise remained cool and composed throughout the rest of their set.

The encore started just like the main set, with the band locking into a rhythm before Campbell and Lanegan joined them for a great rendition of "Revolver." "(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?" was a sultry gem, as was their cover of the Hank Williams classic "Ramblin' Man," which really found the band getting to stretch out a bit, putting their own personal stamp on the fiery number. "Wedding Dress" closed out the set strongly, with Lanegan and Campbell trading off verses effortlessly, as they had the rest of the performance. And with a quick thank you and a wave, the band was off.

Their unlikely partnership perhaps caught the music world off guard a bit initially, but now that Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have released three records together, and toured the U.S. for the first time, audiences will grow more comfortable with the idea of the two of them in a group together. On this evening, at least, no matter who was playing elsewhere, their performance proved to be such a rare and special treat that it made me happy I was nowhere else.

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Critic's Bias: I had this show circled on my concert calendar as soon as it was announced.

The Crowd: A nice turnout, considering all of the other musical options people had in the Twin Cities on Saturday night.

Overheard In The Crowd: "Mark Lanegan's pretty intense, isn't he?"

Random Notebook Dump: I met Lanegan after the show, and he proved to be a nice, genuine guy, despite how intimidating he can appear on stage.

Setlist:

We Die And See Beauty Reign

You Won't Let Me Down Again

Come Undone

Snake Song (Townes Van Zandt)

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 (Townes Van Zandt) (w/Willy Mason)

Cool Water (w/Willy Mason)

I Wish I Knew How To Say Goodbye (w/Willy Mason)

To Hell And Back Again (Isobel Solo)

Back Burner

Time Of The Season

Salvation

Come On Over (Turn Me On)

Get Behind Me

Revolver (Encore)

(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me? (Encore)

Ramblin' Man (Hank Williams) (Encore)

Wedding Dress (Encore)


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