Thursday, January 21, 2021

A nice visit with old friend Daniel Lanois

So I had one of those "Oh, he's still around?" moments the other day when I noticed that Marc Maron had dropped an interview with Daniel Lanois as the latest episode of his WTF podcast.

If you're not familiar with the name, the 69-year-old Lanois was THE trend-setting record producer back in mid-1980s and into the '90s. He helmed dozens of landmark albums for high-profile acts such as U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Brian Eno, Emmylou Harris, Sinead O'Connor, Willie Nelson. Lanois' lush, moody style was the defining sound of that period.

As long as his resume and as big as his reputation as a producer, though, my first thought always when I hear his name turns to his own debut album, Acadie, released in 1989, during my time living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC.

I could not tell you now what prompted me to buy that CD. I did know Lanois' name as the producer of a couple of albums I was listening to at the time -- Robbie Robertson's self-titled debut (1987) and Dylan's Oh Mercy (1989), both of which did carry that recognizable Lanois ambience. It was a time when I was always on the lookout for something new to feed my ears. I must have read a review of Acadie or something that got me curious enough to pick it up one day.

Lanois recorded Acadie in New Orleans as part of a roots-discovery mission. He explained to Maron that the Cajun people in New Orleans (les Acadiens) are from the same line as Lanois' French Canadian family. Acadie, Lanois' debut album as a performer, leans heavily on traditional Cajun music filtered through his signature production style. 

The cover of a 2005 reissue that added a few outtakes

Lanois had some help from some of his all-star friends. Eno is on keyboards along with his brother Brian, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton of U2 are the rhythm section. Aaron Neville does the lead vocals on the closing track, a Lanois-flavored take on the traditional hymn "Amazing Grace." It's one of the several highlights of the album.

I liked Acadie. It was never one of my favorites, but I did turn to it quite a bit for awhile. I gave it a listen earlier today for the first time in years. It was just as interesting and unique as I recall it -- a pleasant-enough listen though not one I am likely to return to any time soon. As I was listening, appreciatively, I was having a hard time understanding why this album connected to me as much as it did back in the day. I've always been and still am a rocker through and through, and not much here rings that bell for me. A couple of the tunes are fairly upbeat. But this album is all about Lanois exploring his French-speaking Cajun roots, to which I have zero connection. It's a little bit of a mystery, which says more about me than it does about this album.

Catching up: I was surprised when I looked into Lanois' discography today that he has released about a dozen solo albums over the years. I had always thought Acadie was pretty much a one-off vanity thing. But apparently he has had a pretty good side career as a performer. Here's a video of him back home in Toronto in 1989 performing a song from Acadie. I took a friend to see him at the 930 Club in the District right around this time. I don't remember much about it except that both of us left buzzing about how nice a show it was.

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