Last night, the National Arts Centre put on one of their most anticipated events of this season of NAC presents. The lineup for the evening included two big names in Canadian music; Basia Bulat and Daniel Lanois, accompanied by the one and only NAC Orchestra. While I was hoping for a little more collaboration between Bulat and Lanois, the evening consisted of a separate set for each of the two artists, with Basia Bulat joining Daniel Lanois to sing backup vocals on one of his songs. Overall it was quite a special evening, but while Basia Bulat delivered a powerful and captivating performance, I found Daniel Lanois to be a bit disappointing.
The first set of the evening was an absolute treat. I had only heard a handful of songs from Basia Bulat, making the show an almost brand new experience. I was completely taken with her powerful yet subtle voice, and the exceptional control she had over her tone and range. She accompanied her voice with various instruments, including piano, guitar, charango, and the hammered dulcimer. All of these instruments were played beautifully and with their own unique character. This almost constant switching of primary instruments kept the set from getting stale or repetitive by always introducing the audience to a new sound. All of these elements are reasons why Basia Bulat is an exceptional performer on her own, but her set was taken to a new level with the backing of the NAC Orchestra. Their beautiful arrangements of Basia’s songs were created by Owen Pallett, so it was no surprise that the orchestral voices were complex and dynamic. Expertly led by David Martin, the orchestra perfectly matched the dramatic rises and falls of Bulat’s music, all the while leaving plenty of room for Bulat at centre stage. My only complaint is that I would have liked this set to be a little longer.
Unfortunately, the second set did not do enough to live up to the high bar set by Basia Bulat. Daniel Lanois’ instrumental tunes were certainly the most memorable part of this set, but even those were lacking a certain something. His instrumental, which he usually led with some excellent lap steel guitar work, were serene, atmospheric, and rather enjoyable, but in every piece I hoped the songs would grow into something greater. Instead, they seemed to hang around some central melodic phrases and then build slightly, but with very little exploration. The songs in which Daniel sang were completely lackluster, and not because of his voice. While he is a soft and enjoyable singer, it is in the songwriting that they are really lacking. Simple verse-chorus songs failed to really go anywhere and did not capture my attention. For what it’s worth, he did include two electronic songs that were actually quite excellent. As for the orchestra, they were placed in a very background role, providing some nice backing but without really being integrated into the music. Unlike their accompaniment for Basia’s set, when they were backing Lanois they did not feel like an integral part of the experience. They felt more like an extra element that was added in. After all the hype I had heard about Daniel Lanois and his prolific career, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by what I heard that evening.
One thing is for certain, I will be eagerly exploring Basia Bulat’s catalogue after last night’s performance. It might be a while before I revisit Daniel Lanois.