Vacating the bar in the Bowery Ballroom just minutes prior to going on stage, support act Willy Mason is perhaps the most humble, relaxed and ultimately genuine twenty-five year old on the planet. Introducing himself and announcing his pleasure to be in New York, he furthermore declares his intention to play a set of entirely original music. Racing through a number of intimate, seemingly ‘off-the-cuff’ songs, interspersed with classics like ‘Hard Hand To Hold’ and ‘Into Tomorrow,’ he delivers his bold vocals with such ease that his words seem made to be heard over the sound of breaking glass - which on a night like tonight is a prerequisite, given the marked disrespect from a rather vociferous contingent of this Manhattan audience. More ‘rarities’ and previously unheard tales of sorrow masterfully crafted drift out across the ballroom in Mason’s resonant deep declaration. Live favourites ‘Waiter At The Station’ (written by his mother) and ‘I Got Gold’ (written for his father) end the set in fine style as Mason gives a simple nod, picks up his bottle of Red Stripe (which he alleges had been staring at him all set) and thanks the New York crowd before heading back down to the bar.
The unlikely duo of former Belle and Sebastian singer and cellist Isobel Campbell, and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, QOTSA, Gutter Twins) remain initially elusive in order to allow anticipation, as well as the crowd itself in the Bowery Ballroom, to build. Sauntering silently on, backed by a four-piece band, the pair launch into the opener from new album Hawk; ‘We Die and See Beauty Reign,’ a track that wouldn’t sound out of place in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks’ ‘Red Room‘; a dream-inducing, pulsating slow dance to hypnotize every listener. Followed by most recent single ‘Come Undone,’ Lanegan, with words on a music stand in front of him, assumes his trademark stance, gripping the microphone with right-hand, stand with left, wincing with every note and watching over his female counterpart like Halloween‘s killer Michael Myers. Campbell on the other hand, who has produced the new album, is noticeably nervous, delivering her breathless vocals perfectly, but shifting around to involve her beloved cello and as many obscure percussion instruments in each song as possible.
‘Honey Child What Can I Do?’ ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas,’ and ‘The Circus is Leaving Town’ from debut album ’Ballad of the Broken Seas’ are a testament to Campbell’s song-writing flair. And despite the author’s unsettled demeanour, Lanegan appears more relaxed with each song, plying vocals to make anyone’s heart crumble in their chest. Vacating the stage after this medley, Lanegan is replaced by ‘’support’’ act Willy Mason, who appears on the new album and performs ‘No Place To Fall’ and the fantastic ‘Cool Water.’ Arguably too humble, especially when stood alongside the inanimate Campbell (long periods pass with the band playing and both Campbell and Mason shoe-gazing) Mason nevertheless ‘plays his part’ in tonight’s main act proceedings like a seasoned professional; running through note-perfect renditions of some of the new LP’s finer moments.
With Willy gone and Mark yet to return, Isobel plucks up the courage to introduce her band, including fellow song-writer, guitarist and oddly referenced ‘colleague’ Jim McCulloch before whispering a haunting version of ‘Saturday’s Gone’.
Lanegan back, the McCulloch penned ‘Salvation’ from second album ‘Sunday at Devil Dirt’ is blue-grassed up live, and ‘Back Burner’ from the same record demonstrates Campbell’s beautiful harmonies but also pedantry, again making sure every scratch, rattle and click is included from the polished version. The latter also demonstrates Lanegan’s incredible voice, a growl that only a prolonged 80-a-day habit can produce. An upbeat finale awakens the audience and rapturous applause ensues as the stage becomes deserted on the stroke of midnight.
Returning for the encore, partially sedated from preceding enchantment, no one could have expected such a spectacle. Favourites from ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas’ are made to sound darker and fresher; ‘Revolver’, ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?’ and ‘Ramblin’ Man’ even see Lanegan shifting his shoulders and forcing out the revered drawl in a spine-tingling fashion. Before departing, even the most ardent fan could not have predicted the gig closer. ‘Wedding Dress,’ a Mark Lanegan (Band) original, thumps and grinds, the mesmerizing man himself gives it his all, as do the band, with raucous solos and crashing drums - a welcome, chaotic, mammoth goodbye.
'Hawk' by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (Feat. Willy Mason) is available now on V2 Records.