On April 30th, 2015 I went to the National Arts Centre to see Daniel Lanois. It was a one-off concert that paired the brilliant songwriter/musician/producer with the world-class NAC orchestra, featuring an opening set by Canadian songstress Basia Bulat.
Only a few fleeting images of Basia’s set remain in my memory. In my mind I can see her on stage but I can’t conjure up anything musical. I’m sure I was too excited for Daniel’s set; my memory hadn’t started recording yet.
And my excitement was well-warranted. Lanois’ soothing songwriting style fit perfectly with the timbre of the lush orchestra, his calming voice sat atop the tasteful orchestration like a concertmaster and his playing was so understated and undeniably brilliant that even the meticulously well-trained musicians behind him took note.
For all of Daniel Lanois’ accolades for his remarkable career as a record producer and his sparse but pervasive recording career, the guy is (and has long been) a really, really good musician. For much (all?) of this concert he was playing his latest instrument of choice, the pedal steel guitar. In spite of being the musical equivalent of a slide-rule or abacus the pedal steel produces the most heavenly of sounds – it has certainly lifted countless Country & Western songs to slippery heights – and in the hands of a musician so deft, so thoughtful and contemplative as Daniel Lanois the instrument itself seemed elevated.
And again, all of his wonderful playing was backed by the finest orchestra in the nation. It was a sound to behold.
I had arranged to meet with Daniel Lanois after the concert to have some items signed to use as fundraisers for the not-for-profit I run. He greeted me with a bright, wide smile and a handshake and was very kind and chatty while he signed a guitar and some microphones for my organization. He was wearing a worn leather jacket and was sporting about a week’s beard growth, making him look more ‘biker’ than ‘Zen music guru’ but he was as friendly as you could ever hope a man would be*.
During the show I noticed he had an effects pedal duct-taped to the side of his pedal steel guitar and he turned it on and off all night with his right hand. I had never seen a pedal steel player use effects before…leave it to a sound-shaper like Daniel Lanois to find a way to beef up an already perfect tone, and how clever and practical to attach the effects pedal directly to the instrument itself. By definition one’s feet are already busy with a pedal steel guitar.
I asked Lanois about the effect and he told me that Brian Eno had just sent him the pedal the week before; I think it was some sort of handmade compressor. Anyway, as soon as he heard it he hooked it up to the pedal steel and loved the sound. He told me that he ended up keeping it switched on for most of the whole concert.
And so this had been the debut of the new Daniel Lanois pedal steel guitar sound, courtesy of Brian Eno. Nifty.
Anyway, I took up about five or eight minutes of the man’s time and left with an armload of signed goods that ended up raising close to $1,000 for our next shipment of musical instruments heading to Zambia.
A big thanks to Daniel not only for delivering a brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime concert but also for agreeing to help out a charitable organization and being a really nice personable guy while he was doing it.
*I met a man in New Orleans one time who was friends with/worked for Daniel, and he told me that Dan’s greatest trick is that he doesn’t register fame on a person. He treats everyone like they are famous, or no-one like they are famous – take your pick. According to this guy Lanois would accord you equal respect whether you were Joe Blow or Bono, and that’s exactly the vibe I got off of him.