This past Thursday Ottawa ears were treated to an inspiring show of sonic exploration when Daniel Lanois and Basia Bulat joined forces with the NAC orchestra under the baton of David Martin. The exclusive concert jointly produced by Ontario Scene, the NAC orchestra and NAC Presents filled Southam Hall with fans eager to hear what Lanois had cooked up. They weren’t disappointed. Far from typical pop-orchestra collaborations, this was a whirlwind of a sonic journey through sets full of shifting styles, moods and instrumentation. Always hungry for new sonic ground Lanois took the concept of a rock artist working with an orchestra and made it his playground, bringing the studio the stage to sample and dub the orchestra’s parts, performing brand new pieces written for the concert, and reimagining his best-loved songs with new grooves.
Conductor, orchestra and star attractions worked together like a well-oiled machine, even though they had only rehearsed together for a few hours the day of the show. At the podium David Martin wore headphones to keep a close ear on the balance between the band behind him and the orchestra in front and was always watching for his cues from centre stage. The brilliant orchestral arrangements for the evening were the work of many hands. The concert’s conductor David Martin worked with Daniel Lanois for months on the arrangements of his songs while Basia’s songs were arranged for orchestra by Owen Pallet and Adam Scime.
Basia Bulat delivered a strong opening set, filling the hall with her siren-like voice as she played through favourites like “Heart of my own,” “Paris or Amsterdam” and “I was a daughter” moving between guitar, piano, autoharp, solo voice and the tiny ten-string charango. Though standing alone at centre stage backed by the massive orchestra she appeared completely at ease, moving with the music and clearly relishing the lushness of the orchestra. The balance between Basia and the orchestra was especially impressive. Even on a song like “the shore” where she played a minimalist autoharp accompaniment picking a steady rhythm on the low strings while hammering on the higher ones, the orchestra expanded her sound without overtaking it.
Daniel Lanois owned the stage from the time he walked on to loud applause, moving like a panther in his tight black outfit topped with a wide brimmed hat. He was joined on stage by bassist Jim Wilson, drummer, Kyle Crane, as well as a console operator, and two camera men who crept around the stage and projected close-ups of the various musicians at work. Other songs were accompanied with short art films synced to the music. Lanois started into the set with two new pieces, “The deconstruction of early days” where he did a live remix of the orchestra and “Fire in my eyes,” a gorgeous piece built around the mingling overtones of his pedal steel.
“Crash Mountain to Senegal,” composed especially for the occasion was a trip. Inspired by his friend Youssou N’Dour, Lanois explained he set out to capture the sound of a Senegalese dance band playing through the night. Even when playing older material he surprised us with fresh takes, adding vocals and lyrics to “Iceland” from Flesh and Machine and playing “Jolie Louise” with a deep reggae groove. On “Two Bushas” composed entirely with technology, Lanois challenged conductor David Martin to a contest between his studio tools and the orchestra’s natural instruments in performing the piece. Lanois stepped to the console performing the studio version and then stood back to watch David work his magic on what was probably the most impressive show of his arranging talent the whole night. Though Martin’s arrangement of “The Maker” was also remarkable, a carefully sculpted take on the hymn-like piece that gave it a transcendent energy.
The orchestra brought an epic creepy-ness to “Marie-Claire/Agave.” Between verses Lanois, Crane and Wilson stretched out in extended jams expressing the violence hinted at in the lyrics. Throughout the night the drumming of Kyle Crane was so jaw-droppingly good it may have reminded some of the movie Whiplash. It’s no accident either; the film did indeed feature his playing.
Finishing the set Lanois’ duet with Basia on “Shine” brought the audience to its feet in a wave across the hall. He happily returned to carry out the night with a two song encore, rolling through “I love you” before tearing into “The End,” an extended storm of inhuman sound, frenetic drums and pulsing synths. In a rich night of music exploring the sonic possibilities of flesh and machine, machine had the last word.
Ontario Scene continues until May 10, 2015. Click here for a schedule of events.