Picture this: a picturesque house, more castle than mansion, nestled within its own forest, somehow impossibly ensconced from a busy Los Angeles neighborhood. A gigantic, three-tier pool greets you on the right as you ascend the brick walkway. You ascend a staircase to a veranda surround by neoclassical columns. Through the archway past the veranda is configured a weapons-grade array of vintage musical gear, assembled in the round flanked on one side by a pool table and on the other one of the most elaborate home recording/mixing arrays imaginable. Behind the equipment is a spiral staircase snaking up to a reverse balcony, adorned on the back wall with luminous, stained glass windows. This is the home of legendary music producer Daniel Lanois. This is the spot where he and crack musicians/singers Rocco DeLuca, Jim Wilson and Johnny Shepherd will play a stunning set of gospel-infused folk and country culled from Lanois’ award-winning and truly excellent contributions to the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack.
For music fans that don’t know or love video games, the Wild West-inspired open-world game Red Dead Redemption 2 was immaculately constructed by mega-successful video game developer Rock Star Games. Famous for their brutally violent Grand Theft Auto titles (also unendingly immaculate) that featured era-spanning, jaw-dropping licensed soundtracks, the studio went one step beyond for their highly anticipated sequel to the original, acclaimed Red Dead Redemption. For RDR2, they brought on composer Woody Jackson who created a score that can be something in the order of magnitude of 80 hours long depending on how you play. And that’s not all, Daniel Lanois took the helm to write and produce an album’s worth of time period appropriate songs featuring numerous musicians and singers such as Rhiannon Giddens, Willie Nelson, D’Angelo and Queens of the Stone Age singer Josh Homme. The song portion of the soundtrack releasing this week, this invite-only event at Lanois’ house was a chance to for Lanois to perform many of these incredible compositions for an audience for the first time.
If you’re not a music fan and you’re reading this, you probably know Lanois’ music and don’t even know it. Hell, you probably own several albums he was instrumental in helping become essential pieces of the timeless pop music history. If you need further convincing go take a listen to U2’s The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree or failing that, Peter Gabriel’s masterworks So or Us. Lanois appropriately framed this performance as a grateful experience made possible by music. He gave music the credit for making the location possible and for bringing the people together to share in the experience. He sat in a circle with DeLuca, Wilson and Shepherd, playing guitar with a pedal steel guitar inches in front of him. DeLuca sat clockwise to his left playing slide guitar. Clockwise from DeLuca was Shepherd making expert use of an organ on a level of skill not seen since the late Ikey Owens. Finally, clockwise from Shepherd was Wilson on electric bass. All four sang in stunning church-like harmony. They opened with breakout soundtrack single “Unshaken (May, I),” hauntingly emanating its mantra-like refrain, “May, I / stand unshaken / amid / amidst a crashing world” perfectly invoking the defiant cause for perseverance in the wake of a violent, insane world. They followed that with “That’s The Way It Is” delving deeper into the danse macabre of life futility. It’s immediately apparent seeing this the genius of Lanois’ production skills as he can be heard effortlessly calling for starts, stops, increases and decreases of volume and yelling out chord changes on the fly. You can feel, see and hear Lanois fine-tuning the arrangement and the performance in breathtaking real time. “Mountain Hymn (See the Fire In Your Eyes)” comes next and is a simple rumination on the daunting cost of victory in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
Lanois introduces “Cruel World” as a song originally constructed with Willie Nelson in mind but they would run through it without the red-haired stranger on this evening. It plays like a brilliant, cool Sunday morning, laughing in the face of a hideous word. The singers harmonize, “Cruel, cruel world / must I go on? / Cruel, cruel world / I’m moving on / I’ve been living too fast / I’ve been living too wrong / Cruel, cruel world / I’m gone,” while DeLuca bleats solemn tones on slide guitar. The entire compound (at least what’s available to invited guests) is wired up with stellar quality speakers and the performance can be heard clearly anywhere that an attendee can stand. It becomes clear at this moment during “Red” that Lanois and his live engineer Wayne are literally producing the entire house, using the foyer of his home as a cavernous church hall, constantly tweaking the mix via the adjacent room and slaving to make every section of every song emanate as if it was a bolt from the heavens. They end simply on unreleased track “Gospel Redemption” and Lanois allows Shepherd to play his organ for a short improv outro. Lanois thanks the audience for their presence and then brings up several members of Rock Star Games’ team and thanks to them as well in a warm embrace for allowing him to be part of the project and making this all possible. He even hints at this moment that perhaps this won’t be the only project that he’ll be working on with Rock Star Games, but offers no further details than that.
It has to be said. The world needs to hear this music live. This, and the masterful spaghetti western-flavored score by Woody Jackson. If Ramin Djawadi can take an orchestra on the road playing the music of Game of Thrones in arenas, there is no earthly reason that these players can’t take this show on the road and purely wow America.
Sometime later Lanois returns to his pedal steel out of nowhere improvising like a nihilistic Sonny Landreth. He calls Shepherd to return on organ and commandingly calls out chord changes while he insistently tweaks every knob, gear and switch in front of him. They segue into another set starting with an old Lanois song “The Maker” as DeLuca and Wilson rejoin the group. They continue to work their way through numerous gospel numbers including “All Night, All Day (Angels Watching Over Me).” They keep going even as most of the attendees as have filtered out playing “Please Don’t Try” and “Say You Will,” painstakingly mutating each number on the fly as the notes bleed out into the surrounding neighborhood and the solemn trees guarding the property…..
Unshaken (May, I)
That’s The Way It Is
Mountain Hymn (See the Fire In Your Eyes)