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
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
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
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
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
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
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.