Luminato's Daniel Lanois tribute with Emmylou Harris, Kevin Drew Massey Hall, Toronto, ON, June 10

Luminato's Daniel Lanois tribute with Emmylou Harris, Kevin Drew Massey Hall, Toronto, ON, June 10
Photo: Lucia Graca
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This year's recipient of a star-studded musical tribute as part of the Luminato festival was Daniel Lanois. Such an event posed more of a creative challenge than last year's choice of Joni Mitchell, for even most hardcore music fans would be hard-pressed to name more than four or five Lanois compositions. The versatile Canadian remains better known as an innovative producer of other artists (Dylan, Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel, U2, Emmylou Harris) than for his own solo and oft under-appreciated work. Noted event producer Hal Willner took on the challenge, assembling a talented cast of performers that managed to reflect the impressive range of Lanois' work. Versions of songs on Lanois-produced albums helped flesh out the program, while some of his original and soundtrack compositions were adapted by a strings-heavy orchestra.

This was far from a smoothly run concert, however. There were ongoing microphone problems and an apparent lack of rehearsal time found many guest singers using lyric sheets. Kevin Drew and Andy Kim apologised for their rather loose take on U2's "One" by commenting they'd only been given a few hours warning for it (sadly, our hopes for a U2-free concert were dashed). Many performers were not properly introduced, some artists expected or rumoured to appear did not (though one, Rufus Wainwright, was in the audience), and some songs listed in the program were not performed (sadly, no Emmylou Harris and Lanois duet on "Early Morning Rain"). To these ears, the inclusion of an orchestra proved something of a distraction. Much of Lanois' greatness centres upon his ability to create evocative soundscapes with very little, often only with his beloved pedal steel guitar. Drenching his work in strings was rather a case of gilding the lily.

Despite these flaws, however, the three-hour-plus show provided enough entertaining and memorable moments to justify the concept. Throughout the evening, Lanois was a key participant. Often seen sitting on the side of the stage, enjoying the moment, he more often than not was up there playing with his typical finesse or dueting with such guests as Emmylou Harris, Martha Wainwright and Mary Margaret O'Hara. He gave supportive hugs and words of encouragement to idiosyncratic genius O'Hara, and was rewarded with a stunning version of "Sweet Soul Honey."

It was no surprise that the pairing of Harris and Lanois came up with many of the show's highlights, as on renditions of "Still Water," Blackhawk" and "The Maker." The pair brought up their bandmate Jim Wilson to join in on gorgeous a cappella tune "Calling My Children Home," reprising a highlight of the Harris/Lanois concert at this venue two months earlier. These gala concerts often give lesser-known artists a chance to make a mark, and this night's winner in that category was Trixie Whitley. She fronts Lanois' Black Dub project, and here she dazzled with vocal turns that ranged from Joplinesque fire ("Surely") to soulful subtlety ("Ice" from 1989 Lanois album Acadie) to a rendition of Black Dub's "Nomad" on which she also pounded on the drums, helping provide the night's most rocking moment. Basia Bulat shone sweetly on "Shine," while Rocco DeLuca (a Lanois production client) also won new fans here. Scottish folkie Alasdair Roberts was given three tunes, and performed pleasantly but unremarkably (his accent didn't quite fit the Quebecois-themed "The Collection of Marie Claire"). One of the night's warmest receptions was for ten students of the Regent Park School of Music, who sang and played winningly on "Moondog," a tune from Here Is What Is.

Roots favourites the Handsome Family acquitted themselves well, while Kevin Drew's solo turn featured a Dylanesque take on Bob's tune "Series Of Dreams," from the Lanois-produced Oh Mercy. Drew was in typical charmingly cocky and theatrical mode, and his exuberance helped energize what until then was a somewhat hushed and reverent vibe. His shout-out of "let's give it up for the band" was welcome, for this was indeed one helluva house band, featuring the likes of Dirty Three drummer Jim White and guitar wizard Bill Frisell, who periodically delivered some subtly graceful solos.

The night closed sweetly with Lanois' brother Bob brought on to play harmonica on "Under A Stormy Sky," a gentle gem from Acadie. That tune was then reprised as the show's finale, with all the guests crowding onto the stage around a beaming and modest Daniel Lanois. "I'm a bit embarassed," he told the audience. "I didn't think I deserved a party, but maybe I do." Yes sir, you do.