“I think this is going to be an amazing show,” said the Cedar Cultural Center emcee introducing Daniel Lanois and Rocco DeLuca last night, “and I think everybody here knows it’s going to be amazing.” That was probably true, but not just because of the names on the marquee: when a show starts with two extremely intense-looking dudes facing each other on steel guitars, singing harmony in falsetto, it’s a safe bet that you’re in for a memorable experience.
The two dudes were Lanois and DeLuca themselves, musicians separated by a generation but united in their love of atmospheric, experimental folk music. They’re folk artists in the way that James Blake is a dubstep artist: the genre serves as a point of departure for long, layered excursions into parts unknown. They’re neighbors, Lanois explained, in Silver Lake, California; they frequently collaborate on music, and as tourmates, Lanois wanted their sets to flow seamlessly together like a Motown revue, “action-packed, back to back.”
DeLuca played a few solo numbers accompanied by Lanois, before their three-piece (or four-piece, or five-piece, depending on how you define composer/mixers and visual collaborators) band joined them for a final DeLuca number that segued into Lanois’s set. DeLuca’s songs are incantatory; brief passages of lyrics were repeated with increasing intensity as the twin guitars sang their mournful songs. Both men are masters at their instruments, and people who go weak in the knees at a little steel guitar (you know who you are) were basically puddles on the floor.
Lanois is a fascinating artist; born in 1951 and active since the late ’60s, the Canadian performer and producer has remained a shadowy presence on the music scene even as he’s been associated with some of the biggest records of recent decades. At the Cedar, he sported a look that might be called Boomer-biker-hipster gothic: bearded face, black cap pulled low, multi-buckled black leather jacket pulled tight, black boots, tight black jeans riding low on his hips with a belt covered in silver medallions.
As a producer, Lanois was a cult figure who became a superstar and is now back to being a cult figure: he and Brian Eno came out of ambient experimentation to co-produce U2’s albums The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and Lanois has also lent his signature swampy vibe to recordings by artists including Emmylou Harris (the stunning Wrecking Ball), Willie Nelson, and most notably Bob Dylan. It was Lanois’s hand with Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind that led Dylan out of his 1980s confusion and into his 21st-century renaissance.
Meanwhile, Lanois has led an eccentric solo career that was illuminated last night by his treatments of songs in three different modes. He has a singer-songwriter mode, highlighted by Acadie (1989, his nearest brush with solo stardom), For the Beauty of Wynona (1993), and Shine (2003). He has a honey-dripped steel-guitar instrumental mode, exemplified by 2005’s Belladonna. Recently, he’s developed a sample-and-mix mode, showcased on his latest release Flesh and Machine (2014).
When Lanois performed those new songs last night, the show started to seem like something that more properly might have belonged at Icehouse after midnight: Lanois bent over his mixer while his musicians rocked away in a manner that Minneapolis audiences have learned to love (or at least to recognize) through the music of Marijuana Deathsquads. Though Lanois doesn’t get quite as cacophonous as MDS, he pointed out that numbers like the closing “Opera” might have “left a few cracks in the ceiling” for the Cedar’s restoration project to address.
When he turned from the mixer to the mic, Lanois performed his greatest hits—or, at least, they were received as such by a crowd that grew to capacity—including “The Maker,” “Still Water,” and “Jolie Louise,” a haunting number that was performed in a spare but jaunty arrangement that you might style Acadian dub. (“I consider myself the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry of Quebec,” joked Lanois.) For a guy who’s reached his biggest fame by letting other people handle the singing, Lanois has an expressive, even beautiful voice, and the Cedar audience, as one can count on Cedar audiences to do, remained at a reverent hush except when they were needed to remind the artist of the venue’s name. (“That sign is confusing,” said Lanois, squinting at the miniature marquee at the back of the room. “There should at least be a leaf motif or something.”)
Lanois repeatedly said that he hoped to elevate the spirit—not so much in a cheerful way (most of his music is exquisitely poignant) but, rather, in a spiritual manner. There’s an unmistakable yearning for transcendence in the music of this massively talented maverick, and he can take me to church any time.