Brian Blade Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub

Brian Blade with Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub
The Troubadour, Oct 15, 2009

By Steve Krugman

There was a long sheepskin pillow laid before the uncut front head of Brian Blade’s 26” vintage bass drum. The Troubadour was a musky mass of bodies densely packing its floor and balconies. Dim, deep-hued floods and a grainy black and white live-film backdrop set the band aglow in the darkened and venerable venue. Lush, sublime, pulsing music and reverent silence imbued the voluminous space. Amber waves of grain beverages. O, beautiful. It was fall in L.A. and Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub had taken the stage.

Fall In L.A
Raised in the Midwest where they do fall well, I’ll eagerly take whatever scraps of the season I can get out here on the West Coast. There is something about entering the embrace of a cozy club crowded with people newly reunited with jackets, out of a crisp and minty autumn night that I like. The Troubadour on October 15th had that warm feel and sense of communion, and the music of Black Dub was the perfect centerpiece. But, no doubt, this was still a uniquely L.A. night, even without the palms and year-round foliage. The cats were out. All musical networks seem somehow to link to Lanois, and Hollywood’s musicians, producers, and fans alike amassed. And, of course, there were the too-loud blondes posturing and preening and prattling. I mentioned The Troubadour, right?

A Band, Indeed
An enviable perch in the balcony, well above the musky mass, offered an unobstructed aerial view of the musicians already knee-deep into the first song of the set. Black Dub is Lanois on guitars, pedal steel and vocal; Blade on drums; Daryl “The Bird” Johnson on bass and vocal; and new recruit Trixie Whitley on lead vocal, Rhodes, and occasional double drums. Lanois and Blade share a deep-rooted musical bond that yielded a series of duo performances in connection with Lanois’ 2007 documentary, “Here Is What Is.” It seems only natural that these two would put a band together eventually. It’s also only natural that it would kick ass. Done and done.

Although billed as Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub, this is truly a band. It is Whole Music: Top quality ingredients blended together to create one organic sound. Good and good for you. It certainly does not come off as simply The Daniel Lanois Band. While likely fascinating, crashing a rehearsal is hardly required to understand that this is collective creation built on trust. Johnson and Lanois have worked together with Emmylou Harris; and Whitley, the 22 year-old daughter of the late Chris Whitley, is currently working on her first full-length solo record in collaboration with Lanois and Blade. Whitley’s latest single release, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” was included in the set. Hearing Lanois in action live parallels and affirms what we’ve learned about him as a producer (short list: Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, U2, Bob Dylan): He is a potent and distinguishable creative force who thrives behind the scenes.

Most of Black Dub’s compositions are his, and the Lanois aesthetic is forefront; but, onstage he was the guy in the band who plays guitar and pedal steel and sings harmony—just as he might on any artist’s record. Johnson’s bass lines often doubled vocal melodies and were rarely relegated to roots and pulse. He brought a low-end lyricism that, until you happened to look at his hands, you may not have recognized as coming from the bass player. His contribution to the velvety harmonies is also deserving of mention. At some point in the show, the surprisingly young Trixie Whitley stole a moment to publicly express her humility and gratitude to be on stage with such…well, with these guys. A genuine show of respect, but with her spot-on, emotive, and deliberate vocals; raucous and confident (she was playing opposite Blade) drumming; and solid Rhodes chops, she need not have demurred. To the uninitiated, this was her show.

A Drummer, Indeed
To the drummers in the room—there were many—it was Brian Blade’s show. I was first aware of Blade through his playing with Kenny Garrett and his own group, Fellowship. His playing was remarkable in its freshness, freedom, sensitivity, and compositional acuity. He had a sound…and a thing. Then, I saw him live with Seal in 1999. Big and powerful. Graceful and loose. Seriously grooving. If Blade had remained confined to the ilk of new-breed jazz drummer with a sound and a thing, that would have been enough to establish him as one of an elite handful of his generation. His capacity to cross between serious jazz and pop/rock with absolute authority, uncanny intuition, and inspired style only expands his influence and elevates his stature. No doubt, Brian Blade is one of the all-time drumming greats.

Not surprisingly, Blade’s jazz sensibilities influence his approach to pop more notably than the contrary. He possesses a hallmark ability to channel music in perpetual motion that, while unique as jazz musician, is revelational in the pop realm. Blade never dwells or regresses behind a drumkit; his playing embraces and personifies the ephemeral nature of time. Hearing, seeing him perform is a philosophical study in letting go and allying with change. Tall, skinny and upright, and ever-so-hiply attired in cinched slim jeans, half boots, and tucked western shirt, Blade was lithe and physical behind his instrument. He changes direction in an instant—mechanically and musically. Probably the most influential aspect of improvised music he brings to more through-composed music is a sense of freedom within structure. With Black Dub, Blade always honored the form of the song, but was never restricted by it. Verse three might be outlined differently than verse two, which might be voiced differently than verse one; patterns connect and evolve organically, always with a focused attention on the present that leads the past to the future seamlessly. In a musical culture of digital editing, Blade’s drumming offers visceral humanity. He is the perfect drummer for Lanois.

Lanois’ music is consistently characterized by lush, ethereal, and layered sound. He announced that the provocative name “Black Dub” came out of his affinity for Jamaican dub. O.K. Aside from a rearrangement of one dub classic, the association was puzzling. There were soulful soundscapes, reverent nods to American roots music, and rolling, melodic meditations. Blade complimented and pushed with sticks, mallets, brushes, and brooms. His instrument—the 26” bass drum, 13” and 16” WFL or old Ludwig toms in faded marine pearl, and equally vintage snare and cymbals—was super-warm and subdued: a sonic hug. On a particularly sparse piece, the hi hats swam in reverb. On a gospel-inspired piece, the snare drum rang like a church bell. Together with Lanois’ exquisitely dialed-in rig, there was no doubt that there were studio masters on stage. Twice, Whitley hopped from front stage onto a 60s red sparkle 20”/12”/14” Gretsch set and layered her drum-stylings with Blade. I confess to an infrequent anxiety dream where I’m playing drums and it feels like I’m moving through invisible viscous goop, like Vaseline or 10W-30, or…something. Watching Trixe Whitley drum immediately conjured that dream. Stiff shoulder strokes and fitful placement somehow totally and joyfully worked. The effect with Blade was primal and rhymically intoxicating. Alternately flam-ed and countered backbeats manufactured controlled chaos and brought to mind an old Miles Davis quote about Tony Williams’ cyclonic playing (loosely): “If it sounds like he’s throwing his drums down a stairwell, maybe that’s how he wants it to sound.”

In Black And White
A word about that black and white on-stage film presentation: A single cameraman, mostly positioned stage right (behind Blade, who regularly sets up side-stage facing in), captured artful angles of the proceedings which were projecting behind the band on a sprawling screen. It was a simple, well-executed, and significant idea that amplified the cinematic effect of Black Dub’s music. It also assisted those in the crowd with sight-lines less fortunate than my own—pretty much everyone. Poor bastards.

Perhaps Daniel Lanois is the one person who could not only have conceived and assembled this band, but gotten away with putting it onstage at a rock club. Granted, The Troubadour is not just any rock club and has hosted more than its share of actual artistically-inclined artists, but Black Dub were a special case. They demanded patience and attention from the capacity audience that not only was accorded without reserve, but was predisposed. People came expecting something extraordinary and left after an extended encore fully satisfied. It was a fearless performance. Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub were given preferential latitude to do what they wanted, and gratefully the band just so happened to want to do something great.