I’ve long considered myself a huge Mark Lanegan fan, and with good reason.
First off, he’s well connected to the Queens of the Stone Age camp, and his sporadic work with Josh Homme and company is something to behold. Secondly, his deep baritone and lyrical prowess makes him the obvious heir apparent to legends like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. And finally there’s the fact that he’s a local legend in his own right, having been the front man of Screaming Trees, a grunge band I’ve always felt a strong connection to considering they were basically the only act I knew of to break out of my home region of central Washington state and make waves in the rock world.
My Lanegan fandom comes with a caveat, though – I love the Trees and the majority of his post-2000 output (which includes projects with Isobell Campbell, the Gutter Twins and Soulsavers), and his 2004 album Bubblegum is one of my all-time favorites, but his more folk-based solo work from the 90s and standards-heavy cover albums never quite did it for me. For that reason I was unsure how much I would enjoy his July 2 gig at Showbox at the Market, which I knew from researching recent setlists would be stripped down and heavy on material from early in his solo career and last year’s covers collection Imitations.
Any concerns I had were unnecessary, it turned out. This is Mark Lanegan we’re talking about, the man with the deepest, darkest, gravelliest voice in rock, and the ability to make even something like the Bobby Darin-popularized “Mack the Knife” sound like it’s right in his comfort zone.
Lanegan was flanked only by skillful Seattle-based guitarists Johnny Sangster and Jeff Fielder for the show, which was a bit of a one-off away from his current tour supporting the aforementioned Cave, and he weaved through a nearly 90-minute set that covered most (but not all) of the directions and scenic routes he’s taken over his 30 years in the music business.
There was a rumbling but reserved take on the pounding “Gravedigger’s Song” from 2012’s Blues Funeral, a Latin-inflected “Don’t Forget Me” from 2001’s Field Songs, and even a gorgeous rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s Bond theme “You Only Live Twice.” But as is probably made obvious by the second paragraph, I found myself drawn to the darker, bluesier and more rock-based songs in the set. “100 Days” and “Bombed,” both from Bubblegum, and Screaming Trees deep cut “Where the Twain Shall Meet” certainly fit that bill, but in my mind four songs really stuck out above the rest.
Perhaps most surprising was “You Only Live Twice,” which had a beautiful, ringing twin acoustic guitar arrangement that was an insanely pleasing juxtaposition to Lanegan’s devilish vocals. Hearing his delivery, I had to wonder if Lanegan would have ever been afforded the opportunity to record a Bond theme if he was born in a previous era, because he without a doubt is made for it.
Lanegan proved that he is still moving forward by playing the new “I’m the Wolf” (set for his next album), which was suitably evil-sounding and featured an impressive yet economical solo from Sangster on a reverbed-out red Gibson SG (which was the unofficial guitar of the gig, as both he and Fielder mainly played that style of ax throughout much of the night).
“On Jesus’ Program,” an old blues song right in Lanegan’s wheelhouse and of which he first covered on 1999’s I’ll Take Care of You, was forceful and a chance for him to unleash an honest-to-gosh belt that made hairs stand up on necks for miles around.
The finale of “Halo of Ashes,” the lead track off the final Screaming Trees studio album Dust (1996), was the unquestionable highlight when all was said and done, however. Fielder unleashed a fury of drone riffs and lead lines, and Lanegan sounded every bit as good pushing his voice to hit the notes at 49 as he did when the song was first released 18 years ago.
Lanegan wasn’t the only 90s Seattle icon to play that night. Shawn Smith of Brad, Satchel and Pigeonhed opened with an entirely solo set, and his vocals were as sweet as ever even though he too is in his late 40s. Smith included bluesy, open-tuned guitar versions of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and Mother Love Bone’s “Crown of Thorns,” and he pleased the crowd with the beautiful “Buttercup” on keyboards. He also got bonus points for clowning on some punk who requested he play “Butterfly,” assuming the audience member was confusing his most well-known song with a Mariah Carey hit. Boom, roasted.
Photos courtesy of John Lill / Jack FM