At the end of March, I started work in Glasgow at less than a week’s notice. I performed a surface clean on the Southampton flat, shoved some work-shirts into a backpack, and caught a bird to the other end of this cold wet rock that clings to the edge of the Atlantic.
A few hours later, I left my temporary digs in the city centre for my first day of the new gig. I boarded the bus before 7am in order to rock up to work on time. I have held a decade of jobs that start before 8am. As a consequence, I have been late to work nearly every day of that decade.
My line of work requires that I either work near ports or in industrial areas. People who can afford not to don’t live next to industrial ports. Typically this means that wherever I work in the world, I see a disproportionate amount of teenage mums, toothless grins, midday drunks and drug addicts. Consequently my eyes were not entirely shut on the bus ride to the job site in Renfrew, adjacent to Glasgow airport. Still…
After 15 minutes, the bus passed through Govan, just across the river from Glasgow’s centre. A drunk man argued with the bus driver because he could not work out where he wanted a ticket to. This is falling-down drunk at 7am on a Monday morning. Eventually the bus driver told him to just get on and sit down.
Feeling that he had been unjustly humiliated, the drunk sat there cursing the bus driver. He hadn’t spent four years in Afghanistan for his country, to be treated like this. He informed all on the bus that tonight he would be thinking about the bus driver while he held a bullet.
Govan is a hard area, dude.
So it was a surprise to find that the venue and the people at my first gig in Govan to be pretty far from hard. The Grand Ole Opry is an American-themed, country and western bar. There ain’t an inch of irony to the stars and stripes centre stage, and the walls covered in murals of cowboy landscapes. While the main act played, an electronic display above reminded us that Tuesday was usually line dancing night.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
You’ll remember Seattle’s Mark Lanegan from 90′s grunge band, the Screaming Trees, or possibly from his vocal contributions to Queens of the Stone Age or Soulsavers. You’ll remember Glasgow’s Isobel Campbell from Belle and Sebastian. Together they have recorded two heavily country-tinged records. So here they are, in a dodgy area of Scotland, on a Tuesday night, which is usually line dancing night here at the Grand Ole Opry. After the gig, the guitarist described the experience as a weird trip.
The set began with a haunting duet with little musical backing. I could see my work colleague (who had tagged along for the evening) already thinking he had made a mistake. I did warn him that it would not be radio music. I have long since given up worrying whether friends or tag-alongers are enjoying the show. I warn them. I feel no guilt.
Without doubt, the vocals are the feature of the night – whether in whispered harmony, or Isobel Campbell’s sweet voice floating above quiet guitar strumming, or Mark Lanegan’s husky voice somehow soothing even though it seems often on the edge of cracking. I know Mark Lanegan’s recent work and his voice has acquired that old-man blues quality. In the Screaming Trees, his voice soared over the over the surprise hit, Nearly Lost You. Several hard miles since those days, have given his voice a new, lived character.
Isobel Campbell arsenal was varied in nature. Whilst the feature was her voice, she regularly sat to provide melody and counter-melody from the bow on her cello. At one point in evening, she even carried the melody with some of the best whistling I’ve ever heard.
The set touched a few places – from rocky guitar solos to the sexy duet of Come on Over. However, a country influence dominated the evening.
Country music, and in particular modern country music, is not an area of expertise for Noise Road. However, we do own a handful of records of what we like to call “old man country”.
I enjoy Johnny Cash – that dude has soul. I am able to look past his overt Jesus-loving, for the pain and raw experience that dude is able to cough onto a mic. This is the same vibe that I felt from Mark Lanegan tonight.
Going back even further, I also enjoy Hank Williams. When people ask me why I am always on the move and why I haven’t settle down, I’ve been known to throw some of Hank’s Ramblin Man at them.
So it was interesting that Campbell and Lanegan chose to end the night with a cover of Ramblin Man. Are Lanegan and Campbell’s influences primarily old country? Or do I just know so little about modern country? The slightly rockier nature of the Ramblin Man cover gave away Campbell and Lanegan’s alternative and indie rock roots.
On paper, Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell playing country music is an odd proposition. But the space in the music allows their unique personalities to come through. I do not think that you have to be a devoted fan of the genre to appreciate such a rare chemistry between performers.
I would write more but there’s something o’er that hill that I got to see.
Sometimes its hard, but you gotta understand
When the lord made me, he made a ramblin’ man