Much is still made about the sheer oddity of Isobel Campbell’s detour into rootsy Americana with Mark Lanegan — even after the duo released their third album, Hawk, in August. And, sure, the gravelly, whiskey-drenched voice of the former Screaming Trees frontman might be an unlikely match for the angelic coo of an ex-Belle & Sebastian singer and cellist. But you’d think the pairing would sink in after three records. It hasn’t.
Playing their first-ever U.S. show together on Wednesday night at Boston’s intimate basement venue, the Middle East, Campbell and Lanegan did little to show that their collaboration is any less idiosyncratic than it was the first time in 2006. For better or worse.
Walking onstage in black, Lanegan scowled meanly with his head turned down — a look rarely leaving his face throughout the night. Campbell quickly followed behind, looking innocently twee in her blue sweater and oversized belt buckle. Joined by a solid backing band, the duo immediately went into the spooky wisp of Hawk‘s “We Die and See Beauty Reign.” While it’s an effective album opener, Campbell and Lanegan sounded mechanical and distant from one another while performing it onstage, setting the tone for much of the set. Even during Hawk‘s highlight, the noirish “Come Undone,” they couldn’t quite join together to evoke the single’s sexy soul. Strange, considering that the song liberally cribs from James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” The two didn’t even make eye contact until halfway through the sixth song, when they gave each other mischievous smiles, as if to say, Oh, you’re here? I guess we should get started then.
But they still weren’t quite ready.
Lanegan stepped offstage to let Campbell reintroduce Willy Mason, a solo acoustic guitar player who opened the night sounding much like Townes Van Zandt. Mason sings on two of Hawk‘s tracks with a voice far more mature than his 25 years. With the young singer onstage, Campbell appeared to finally find a cohesive musical rapport. After giddily slapping the beat of their Hawk duet “Cool Water” on her leg, Campbell rightfully said, “He’s very good… He’s very, very good,” making one wonder whether a future album will be headlined by Campbell and Mason rather than Lanegan.
When Lanegan did reappear onstage, Campbell’s newfound energy let everything fall into place. She’d loosened up during Mason’s three-song visit and Lanegan seemed to have a firmer grasp on the older material that largely made up the set’s second half. Lanegan even smiled a couple of times.
“He’s got the look,” Campbell cheekily said. “Someone’s gonna get it. And it might be you… Or me.” And here’s where the duo finally came together. They nailed the theatrical whimsy of “Come on Over” and the foot-stomping blues of Hawk‘s “Get Behind Me.” Then they did a four-song encore showing the surprising versatility of Lanegan’s low growl, taking it from the folksy innocence of “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me” to the shuffling blues-rock of “Wedding Dress.” It made you wish Lanegan found that “look” earlier in the night.