A shaky trip from studio to the stage


June 2, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


Toward the end of his second set during a sold-out show at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Friday, Daniel Lanois took off his hat.

This may not sound like news, but Lanois' black skull cap is as omnipresent as the one worn by his pal the Edge, whom he has recorded since 1984. And the removal of said chapeau was what passed for excitement in this rare performance of his own music.

Best known for his studio work with U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Emmylou Harris, Lanois has peppered his career as a superstar producer with beautiful albums of ambient music and collections of ethereal folk and pop songs.

His latest disc, "Shine," was 10 years in the making, and it was worth the wait. But the material didn't fare quite as well in live performance.

A charming and self-effacing frontman, Lanois has a limited vocal range but an effectively dreamy delivery. It was as a guitarist where he really shined, though.

While he played too few tunes on his primary instrument, the pedal steel, Lanois displayed a wide range of unique sounds on the regular acoustic and electric guitars as he alternated between romantic ballads (often sung in the French tongue of his native Quebec), folk and blues reworked as ambient dream music and the occasional full-throttle art-rocker such as "Still Water."

This tune, the second in his first set, proved to be the highlight of a long and overly generous evening as Lanois turned the song into an epic guitar blowout a la Neil Young's Crazy Horse, with his regular drummer, Brian Blade, and a pickup bassist, Chicagoan John Abbey, propelling him forward.

One of the problems was Blade, an undeniably impressive percussionist and a renowned name in the jazz world. The New Orleans musician was too much of a showboater, however, especially on the songs that were performed as a duo with Lanois.

While his deft polyrhythms and ever-shifting percussive colorations wowed at first, after a time, the jazz-skeptic rock fan in me longed for Blade to play a simple backbeat for two bars and stop shifting the focus from Lanois.

The other problem was that Lanois, who is masterful at emphasizing other artist's strengths, wasn't nearly as sharp when editing himself.

The two-hour concert had plenty of high points, among them the lovely "Slow Giving" and the instrumental "Transmitter" from the new album and "Falling at Your Feet," a song co-written with U2's Bono for the soundtrack of Wim Wenders' film "The Million Dollar Hotel." But over the course of some two dozen songs, the material started to sound entirely too same-y and repetitious.

Given the rare opportunity to emerge from behind the mixing console to stretch out onstage, it's understandable that Lanois wanted to make the most of his turn in the spotlight. But his biggest talent as a producer is knowing that sometimes less is more.

As a performer, the studio giant would have been better served by adhering to this same minimalist aesthetic.