Playing covers as an encore is a worthy way to pay homage to those who’ve influenced an artist. Mark Lanegan performs faithful renditions of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to end his show at KOKO with bravery and passion.
Lanegan incorporates English ’80s and ’90s influences into an authentic US grunge sensibility from his time in Screaming Trees, filling his set with tracks from a broad back catalogue. All in black, against gloomy coloured backlighting, the Mark Lanegan Band play just five numbers from new album ‘Gargoyle’, starting with opener ‘Death’s Head Tattoo’. Lanegan tightly grips his microphone with one hand, the stand with the other, his Washington drawl breaking into melodic choruses. The drums shuffle and synth fills the gaps. His is a dark, off-kilter vision, particularly in churning tracks such as ‘The Gravedigger’s Song’ — sounding like a ‘Game Of Thrones’ soundtrack — and the jauntier ‘Riot in My House’ (both from 2012’s ‘Blues Funeral’), which could be a late Echo and The Bunnymen offering except for the US rock guitar.
Lanegan’s rich, deep voice recalls not just Ian McCulloch, but also Jim Morrison, Scott Walker and Iggy Pop. It shines in the thoughtful and atmospheric ‘No Bells On Sunday’ — one of five tracks in tonight’s set from ‘Phantom Radio’ (2014). The last oldie before a run of songs from ‘Gargoyle’ is the punky, short and sweet PJ Harvey collaboration ‘Hit the City’ from ‘Bubblegum’ (2004).
Newer songs like ‘Nocturne’ share the sense of late 20th century alienation that marks out Lanegan’s earlier solo writing, but he’s added post-new romantic synth electronics to the mix. His singular voice is at its most Iggy Pop-ish in ‘Emperor’, juxtaposed with a repetitive singalong guitar riff. And the vocals show no strain in the ballad ‘Goodbye to Beauty’, nodding to the best of US country and western.
The ‘Gargoyle’ selection finishes with the faster ‘Beehive’ — recalling Jesus and Mary Chain when he sings “honey just gets me stoned” while three guitars riff, as the keyboard player has switched instrument. He is back on the synth for the electronica of ‘Ode to Sad Disco’, ironically danceable as the drummer hits a technopop beat. Lanegan triggers recollection of Simple Minds, Duran Duran at their moodiest, Psychedelic Furs, mid ’90s David Bowie and The Walker Brothers — adding vibrato on the deepest notes and a touch of the rasp of Tom Waits.
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‘Harborview Hospital’ is even poppier — synthpop organ chords ringing out — as Lanegan’s sumptuous voice duels with the guitars. Moving from an almost spoken deadpan to low melodious passages, his register plumbs new depths. His oldest solo song tonight, ‘One Way Street’ from 2001, evokes a gloomy melange of The Doors, Julian Cope, Waits, Eric Burdon’s The Animals and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Lanegan stops every now and then to fiddle with his glasses; wiping them, taking them off and putting them back on for grungier numbers like ‘Head’ — a sharp piece of rubber soul rock from ‘Bubblegum’. On ‘Deepest Shade’, a song by The Twilight Singers from his ‘Imitations’ cover album he takes on the heartfelt honesty of a love song in the same way that McCulloch throws himself into tracks such as ‘The Killing Moon’.
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Lanegan’s like the finest grade of sandpaper in ‘One Hundred Days’ from ‘Bubblegum’, supported by deliberate, serious bass playing, sparkling guitars and sustain on the warbling keyboard. Either side of this track, he plays four uplifting numbers from ‘Phantom Radio’ — synth, drum and bass dominating the start of ‘Floor of The Ocean’ until twanging guitar comes in to echo the vocal melody. In a speaking voice even more raspy than when he sings, Lanegan offers a “Thanks very much” to the audience before a soaring ‘Torn Red Heart’, another that recalls the Bunnymen. The electrobeat of ‘The Killing Season’ would be what Madchester indie dance classics sounded like if their singers were more in tune — full of electronic drums, low-end top string bass and synth sequencing.
Lanegan ends the main set with the big psychedelic ‘Death Trip to Tulsa’ — synth fanfares blare, bass and drums drive relentlessly, guitars shred and doodle. He briefly leaves the stage with his band, and a roadie carefully readjusts the neat setlists clipped onto small stands on either side on the singer’s monitor in preparation for the genuine tribute to Joy Division.
After the show, the PA blasts out ‘The Robots’ by Kraftwerk, who are playing further west at the Royal Albert Hall on the same night. It’s a fitting postscript — their pioneering computer music has added yet another element to the primordial soup that gives origin to Lanegan’s rich blend of transatlantic alternative sounds. Above all, Lanegan’s performance is all about great singing. He possesses one of the great indie voices.