Shepherd's Bush Empire, 23rd January
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan's album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, tells timeless tales of love, regret, betrayal and heartache borne of long-suffering distance. So it is perhaps unsurprising that their performance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire a couple of weeks ago played out like one of Isobel's own compositions. An ode to the reunion of long-lost lovers, separated by time and vast plains, the tale carried us from initial uncertainty and emotional distance unsteadily through to a rousing finale, all the while cheered on by a chorus of supportive onlookers, willing them to make it work...
Act One: As the scene opens on a darkened set, Mark has the look of a man pining for the great wide open spaces of the West, already yearning to be free of Isobel and their tawdry homelife. It never would have worked any old how, she'll never understand menfolk and their ways. He's had enough of her fussin' and mussin' and he'll be gone on the next coach, leaving her to ruin her needlepoint with bitter tears. His voice crackles into in a godless "Deus Ibi Est" with the richness of single malt whisky on the rocks. Meanwhile, some distance apart, Isobel is worrying, possibly coming down with the flu, and daren't look at him for fear of what she'll read there as her fragile voice quivers slightly off-key for this and Mark's own song, "Carry Home".
Act Two: It seems that in a dream the night before he's due to catch the coach, Isobel's ghost visits Mark, playing soothing cello and whispering ethereal harmonies of the undead to "Ballad of the Broken Seas", and echoing the haunting lines of "Saturday's Gone"—'you can't stay, though you'll never leave'. Revived by a solo performance, minor missed cue mishaps, and some pesky reverb from poltergeists, Isobel rallies the ready encouragement of the audience in clapping before hitting her stride in a lively "The Circus is Leaving Town". Through the dream sequence, instruments with which Isobel distracts herself include: cello, guitar, keyboard and tambourine. Which really does show what we women are capable of learning when our man's away and there's heartbreak at the homestead.
Act Three: We are heartened by a softening in the ill-fated couple's relations during the standout song of the evening "Do You Wanna Come Walk With Me?", perhaps reminding them of good times at the barn dances. Marred only by a soporific cover of "Sand" which, nonetheless, has promisingly flirty undertones, the couple are now reunited, exchanging affectionate glances for the blissful "Honey Child What Can I Do?". For the demanded encore, Mark's majestic vocals in "Ramblin' Man" are followed by an impressive performance from Isobel whistling with happiness that her man's back for good, and the tale closes on a soothing finale.
Ballad of the Broken Seas, the 2006 Mercury Prize nominated album from Isobel Campbell, formerly cellist with Belle and Sebastian, and Mark Lanegan, previously of Seattle's Screaming Trees, was in large part recorded separately by Isobel in Scotland and Mark in the States; this was their first tour together. As anyone who's attempted a long-distance relationship knows, maintaining an emotional connection while conducting separate lives is tough—let us hope Mark and Isobel don't roam too far to make more beautiful music together.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan's album, Ballad of the Broken Seas is out now.
Image from Volume12's Flickr photostream