I remember, early one cold and dark winter morning, driving east with my father to inspect a construction site he had been working on. Dawn was still some hours away and the windows of his company truck were frosted from overnight moisture. A chill came through the cabin door and I remember pulling the sleeves of my jacket low so that I could keep my hands warm. It was a rare occurrence for me to travel with my father to one of his work sites and I can’t quite recall what reason had me up so early that particular morning other than that’s what was expected of me and that’s where I was.
We left Toronto behind, driving steadily on a lightly snowed highway 401. It may have been a weekend. There weren’t many automobiles on the road. Buildings gave way to warehouses which gave way to pine or maple trees or forested moraines to my left and a cold, still, Lake Ontario unfolded to my right.
The truck was quiet as neither my father nor I spoke much on the drive. There were no business calls either. It was the early nineteen nineties and cell phones weren’t in the jacket pockets of blue collar workers or tired-eyed teenagers with much regularity. The radio was on, however, an FM channel softly playing the songs of a Canadian musician. The light, bluesy guitar sounds and thick, honeyed bass groove played alongside the backdrop of the drive, echoing each other in both imagery and feel. “I’m going to build the bridges high for working money” the singer crooned and I thought: my dad does that for a living.
The station played four songs by that artist, Daniel Lanois as I discovered, and as the sun rose brightly over the eastern tree line, a silent father and son shared some notable time together on a simple drive to an outlying town.
I make mention of this story for a reason: Daniel Lanois, in the best of Canadian traditions, tells stories in his music, inducing emotion through the imagery of landscape and the experiences of characters, both fictional and factual. His eclectic and experienced music and song craft is, at its heart, distinctly Canadian.
Playing at venerable Massey Hall in downtown Toronto this past Friday night, Lanois took to the stage as he should – amidst a story.
Looking like a cross between a Cuban national and a hipster lumberjack, he sported a thick black beard, form-fitting black leather jacket and jeans and pointed-toe rhinestone shoes. He tells the audience that he had once sat in the front row at this very venue, years ago, to watch and listen to the brilliant Miles Davis, a show that inspired him to create music. He opens with the beautiful The Maker, off of his first solo album, Acadie, and the crowd is immediately in awe over the sounds he and his three fellow musicians fill the hall with.
A stage technician manipulates a hand-held camera, unobtrusively moving in and out the band, projecting them in black and white on a large screen at the back of the stage, showcasing the deft drumming of longtime collaborator Brian Blade as much as the musicianship of Lanois. These men enjoy playing together and it is evident from their artistic jamming that would stray from established songs and then return to the sounds that the audience recognized. An ample selection from Lanois’ first release would be played, with special attention given to the French-versed songs, a nod to his Quebecois heritage. Jolie Louise, the sad story of a man whose loss of family is of his own doing, is played to enthusiastic acclaim.
Between songs, Lanois converses with the audience, scanning the upper balconies and telling stories of the ghosts of past performers at Massey Hall, where other story-teller musicians such as Gordon Lightfoot once played. He mentions the studio that he’s building in Toronto and acknowledges friends and family and his most cherished watering hole in the city. The sounds he makes on his guitar or pedal steel evoke the images of his downtown Hamilton, St. Catherines, Toronto or, for that matter, any other city or small town in Canada. He creates a musical panorama that echoes the landscape of the country: grand and natural, a terrain that is at once endless and open as well as dense and finite.
The lyrics of Lanois evoke the images and poetry of the Canadian open highway in songs like Sometimes and the running river, vital to commerce, in Still Water. He stirs a range of emotion, giving us the despair of parentless children in Where Will I Be, a new, richer and groove-based take on the song he wrote for Emmylou Harris years ago. He “raises the roof,” as he tells the audience, with Here Is What Is, the title track of his latest release, a song that suggests the acceptance of self, this night played loud and long.
Lanois doesn’t mind posing like a rock star on stage. He’s not pretentious about it, but he turns and stares at the camera on more than one occasion, his arm making a half windmill as he strums his guitar at just the right moment. He breaks a string, something he never does, he tells the crowd. He’s into his band, his music and his audience, and, perhaps, he’s learned a thing or two spending time with the likes of Bono. Still, he’s appreciative when told by a charity representative that he’s sponsored over two hundred children in third world countries through his many donations. The somber moment doesn’t ebb his sense of humour, however. He asks the audience to purchase product at the swag stand, nodding to his rhythm guitarist, a resident of Tijuana, Mexico, and says “It cost a lot to get him here!”
He finishes the evening with a beautiful rendition of Rocky World, which leads into an instrumental piece before the house lights go up.
The music of Daniel Lanois is storytelling accompanied by melody. His soundscapes conjure images of his home country and its people and, like all great songs, makes us remember and sometimes relive instances in our own lives. It can take listeners back to wintry Ontario mornings, riding in quiet peacefulness on Highway 401 – a distinctly Canadian moment that transcends nationalities, becoming something more, something universal.
A musical memory for all.
(Many thanks to Denny B. for providing photographs)