By Mark Guarino
Record producers may not get the riches, fame or groupies of the stars they produce, but they are allowed a caveat almost as valuable: the freedom of obscurity.
Even for a producer like Daniel Lanois, the most successful and visible producer of the last 20 years, this is an essential benefit. Lanois is responsible for shaping career breakthrough albums for U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, the Neville Brothers and Emmylou Harris among others — albums not only draped in his trademark swampy ambience but, in some cases, he also performed on and helped write.
But as famous as his friends may be, Lanois keeps pursuing his own music, if infrequently. “Shine” (Anti) is Lanois’s first album in ten years and his third total. He is dedicating this entire year to performing live, but it’s not in the sports stadiums and amphitheaters his clients are used to playing. Instead, Lanois is sticking to small clubs and theatres — an “opportunity,” he said at his sold-out show at the Old Town School of Folk Music Friday, “for words to be heard.”
The close quarters perfectly suited Lanois’s songs, which at times quietly hummed before exploding. Playing 23 songs split into two sets stretched over 2 1/2 hours, Lanois showed many sides of his musical personality. Singing in French, he performed acoustic folk songs influenced by his childhood in Quebec, he sat at his pedal steel guitar to play melancholy instrumentals, and joined by New Orleans jazz drummer Brian Blade and Chicago bassist John Abbey, Lanois went into rock trio mode, jamming intensely. Due to Blade’s light touch to his drumkit and Lanois’s succulent fingerpicking, the results were both physically and emotionally wrought.
Lanois is a quiet singer, which transformed the studio versions of his songs, usually enhanced by his lush production. Without the golden guest vocals of U2’s Bono, “Falling At Your Feet,” a new song with lyrics written Bono, it was threadbare and more personal. The eloquence came with his instrumentation — re-arranging Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love,” Lanois split the song’s middle wide open with a guitar solo mimicking hundreds of screeching seagulls.
The show was capped with instrumentals on his pedal steel. Like the naked snapshots in his lyrics, Lanois has perfected the sound of isolation — listening to his slow and lonely melodies, you can see bleak desert landscapes and Louisiana swamps shrouded in fog. For a song dedicated to the Lake Michigan landscape, Blade played splashy percussion accompanied by Lanois’s muted guitar, evoking dark, choppy waves after a storm. On “The Maker,” a mountainous song stocked with biblical images of floods and flames, he and Blade improvised furiously.
Afterwards, Lanois stood in the lobby, meeting and hugging the long line of fans sticking around to chat. Friday’s show was not just a rare opportunity to hear the sounds that resulted in some of rock’s best albums of the past two decades, but also a strange chance to catch up with and get to know the low-key musician behind the curtain.