There was a brooding presence that could not be ignored here tonight, even if Mark Lanegan was thousands of miles away. The former drug-addled front man of the US grunge- rockers Screaming Trees was much missed at this showcase for the Ballad of the Broken Seas duets album.
Isobel Campbell, until 2003 a key player in Belle and Sebastian, had failed to escape that group's shadow with her first solo project, Gentle Waves. The Ballads... collaboration with Lanegan, however, is a jaw-dropper, as the fey Glaswegian with the breathless voice swaps verses with the pine cone-guzzling rocker. Lanegan himself has successfully ditched the distortion in recent years, though songs such as 2003's 'Methamphetamine Blues' still betray an obsession with life's seamier side.
Tricky waters to sail, then, taking on those classic male/female combinations of the past: sardonic Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, seedy Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, even stern Nick Cave and Kylie. So it would have been intriguing to see Lanegan and Campbell performing together, given their twist on the tradition: Campbell is the senior partner, having written most of the songs.
Instead, she was joined by Eugene Kelly, formerly of The Vaselines and a star in his own right given the outfit's influence on Kurt Cobain. His voice, though, was no match for Lanegan's, lacking the American's easy authority on the martial "Deus Ibi Est", while "False Husband" missed the sinister edge and searing regret that makes the recorded version so compelling.
Kelly seemed to knock Campbell off her stride; she sighed distractedly during the duets and even burst into giggles at one point. Matters improved when she sang solo, her vocal perfect on the mountain ballad "O Love Is Teasin'''. For The Wicker Man's "Willow's Song", Campbell played the cello standing, her three-piece band matching her intensity, and made it her own.
Kelly found his range later on. The Everly Brothers' "Love Hurts" was ideal for his higher register, as was Campbell's "Honey Child What Can I Do?"
But Campbell was surprisingly diffident all night, needing to pull the set together, but instead in awe of her older band mates. Playful with the traditional material, she was rarely in such command of the stage.
Tonight, Birmingham Glee Club (0870 241 5093); Saturday, Glasgow ABC 2 (0870 903 3444)Reuse content