Something mysterious clings to even the most readily outreaching bits of Black Dub, the first band proper for studio wizard Daniel Lanois. While their music grows from the rich soil of gospel, blues and pop, there’s a humbling wonderment in the face of great things inherent to Black Dub. This is music as spiritual practice that just happens to be finger-snapping good.
Watching the band make their intimate San Francisco debut at The Independent in late January one instantly picked up on the belly fire and far reach in this quartet, comprised of Lanois on vocals and guitar, drum master Brian Blade, singer Trixie Whitley (daughter of late treasure Chris Whitley) and bassist Jim “The Pipe” Wilson, who’s filling in for original bassist Daryl Johnson who appears on the group’s primo self-titled studio debut from last year. Their dance is one filled with patience and well-placed volatility. Close your eyes and you can practically see the wave forms undulating in the air – beautifully fleshed out moments enfolded into a powerful sense of the present circumstance unfolding and skipping around one. Put another way, shit is alive as a motherfucker.
Lanois’ excitement about Black Dub is palpable. He’s out on the streets of NYC busking with Trixie or letting a cameraman peek into the most intimate corners of their performances, ready to make music at every turn and turned on like a rock loving teenager with his first proper amp. To borrow a line from Buffalo Springfield, something’s happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear. New shapes continue to form with each passing month but each is so compelling one welcomes the uncertainty. Perhaps the only way to really get a sense of what’s going on in Black Dub is to pick the brain of man behind the curtain.
You used the word “congregation” near the end of the San Francisco performance. It fits because that evening felt holy.
I felt that on that night, too. There were a lot of hopefuls and dedicated hearts out there. Maybe that’s the modern church without a steeple.
Many of us are cynical about organized religion in the modern era, but we still have that soul-hunger that needs to be fed somehow. Music has been the source of that for me for a long time, and it’s clear Black Dub is operating on a deeper level than mere entertainment.
When you’ve dedicated your life to music it’s hard to see it any other way really. It could never be a hobby could it? I had a dream a few years back, simply put, to have a collective, a platform, a crossroads. And in these busy times it’s nice to stop things and ask, “Do you want to be part of this?” So, I’m very lucky to be in the presence of Brian Blade, one of the master drummers of our time, and Trixie is really on the rise with her phrasing and she comes from a deep place. I just decided to trust my instincts a while back and invite these people on this train ride.
Often musicians get obsessed with creating the “new thing,” but Black Dub lovingly embraces tradition and then warps it to their own ends. There’s gospel and classic pop undertones to many pieces. The performance of “Surely” in San Francisco made me think of what it must have been like to encounter, say, The Platters’ “Only You” or “My Prayer” in the 1950s.
Well, you’ve chosen a good one there. “Surely” is a classic, and it’s because it’s a 6/8 groove and it resonates with music from the 50s. Alicia Keys revisited that a few years back by going after her hit, which was essentially based on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” And “Surely” is part of that revisit, if you will, based on a forgotten doo-wop groove. I like to stand behind the old American grooves whenever possible. I love shuffles and 6/8s, so we’re happy to be part of the gang with “Surely.”
There’s such high powered musicianship in this group, yet you excel in something many of your peers in this regard don’t – under-playing – letting things hang in the air and not playing a flurry of notes just because you can.
One of my favorite things to do in the show is to stop playing. I let Jim Wilson take it with Brian Blade, and with Trixie singing it’s almost like they enter the hip-hop community, where they don’t clutter the picture with too much – a groove, bass and a sample of some sort. I subscribe to that empty landscape, and when you’ve got somebody as good as The Pipe on bass you should give him a moment.
Daryl Johnson played bass on the album, but he’s not touring with you now.
Daryl Johnson is in jail. He’s unfortunately battling substance problems and dealing with that right now. Then, I had to think, “Who could possibly fill his shoes?” and Jim Wilson was at the top of the list.
The band’s evolution, the collective conversation, seems to be going forward despite Daryl’s absence.
Eventually you have to pick up the pieces and carry on. We’re doing the best that we can, and I have to say, we’re getting to a new place with the harmonies. The thing that never gets talked about with Jim Wilson is how he’s a great musicologist. He’s been collecting vinyl for a lifetime. He brings a wealth of knowledge to the stage beyond the specifics of the songs. We can safely say his dedication comes from a reliable place. [For more on Jim Wilson, check out his stellar blog].
There’s so much listening and communicating in Black Dub’s music. One feels these songs evolving live, taking on new forms, but subtle in their changes.
We talked about studio versions versus stage versions earlier today. What happens in modern record making is you go in with a song that hasn’t been properly fleshed out in its arrangement and you work hard and get to a place with it. Then, you take it to the stage in a much more streamlined manner because you don’t have all the overdubs and you need to make it work. But, when you’re surrounded by talent of the caliber of my mates in Black Dub you’ve got the resources to make it work, especially as a three-piece band instrumentally.
Since you mixed the show in surround as you played, one felt compelled to find the sweet spot in the room and just drink it all in. I think this is one of the places where the “dub” in the band’s name surfaces in the texture and feel of the live experience being shaped in this way.
We love surround sound, and it’s almost homage to John Meyer (Meyer Sound). We visited John prior to the show and we philosophized about sound and how antiquated it is to think that two speakers in the front of the house will satisfy the whole room. If you have speakers in the back or side-fills or in the corners of the room, you have a chance to put the lyrics into the spots where a lyric might not normally reach. It’s almost a necessary consideration if you’ve got lyrics you’re proud of and want to be heard and not suffocated by other tones. Vocals are the first thing to disappear because they’re high frequency, so they tend to get lost in the sound waves of the deep bass. This is just our attempt to let the word be heard through technology.
The harmonies are increasingly important in this band. You seem determined to get just the right blend of voices together in Black Dub.
We love harmony singing because it gets us out of our usual selfish ways [laughs]. You have to be considerate to your mates for it to work. In life there’s usually a lot of “me, me, me” going on. A moment of harmony is about “us, us, us,” and that’s the thing coming across to the audience and brings us closer to the tricks we want to be a part of.
I was pleased to hear you tap into some of your solo material with Black Dub. Hearing “The Maker” again in SF made me realize all over again how much I love your solo debut Acadie (1989).
On Trixie’s enthusiasm, we decided to include “The Messenger” and “The Maker,” and just recently we brought “Fire” back into the picture, which slots in nicely. I was up late last night practicing. I am a guitar player first and foremost.
You’re known as such a studio rat that one outcome of Black Dub may be to remind people what a roaring good guitarist you are.
The finger-picking angle, the fact that I don’t play with a pick, is pretty rare [with electric guitar], and that’s something I apply to the steel guitar as well as I find my spot in the community of guitar players.
The live duo section with Brian and you on steel is a real highlight of the show. I like how you said that you’re still consistently surprised by steel guitar.
You know what it is, every room has its own curious resonances and frequencies, and the steel guitar has perfect pitch because it has perfect major thirds. So, sometimes I’ll strike it with my right hand and it takes on a life of its own, and I dare not strike it again until it speaks for itself [laughs]. It’s beautiful when that happens. It makes you play less and I get more melodic when that happens. There are beautiful little idiosyncratic expressions available through the pedals. I can do these bends, like a double-string bend, and even people who’ve known me for a long time will tell me my playing is getting better & better.
Black Dub is heading towards a rare intimacy with its audience. If one opened themselves up to what you folks were laying down in SF, there were myriad openings for one to slip inside this stuff. The whole approach, the nakedness of the band, seems to invite folks in.
We’ve been working very hard on this philosophy. I’ve seen a lot of rock shows. I enjoy the U2 rock show, where there’s a camera on each member of the band and a screen for each member. But with [Black Dub] it’s seen through the eye of one beholder, which almost skips over technology, in a way, with a point of view that’s touching because it’s a person and not a production team. Plus, the camera can obviously get up close to somebody’s hands and that can be magnified up on screen so even somebody 10 rows back will see something they wouldn’t otherwise.
I definitely felt like I was witnessing an angle on your playing in particular I’d never experienced before. I was simply laid flat by your guitar work, and the band in general, in SF.
Well, it’s all about blazing guitars and hot chicks and the drool froth. That was said in humor, by the way [laughs].