Date: Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007
Dateline: Hamilton, ON
“Daniel, Bob is going to introduce you.”
“Who’s Bob?” says our guest of honour, Daniel Lanois.
“That’s me”, I say.
“Oh, I thought Dylan was here”, deadpan Lanois.
Okay, it’s an easy mistake. Daniel Lanois certainly does hang in such company, having produced two Bob Dylan albums in his career. Plus, we’re both writers, an we’ve both mentioned Lanois extensively in our books, Dylan in his Chronicles memoir, and me in the Top 100 Canadian Albums. But tonight, the esteemed Mr. Lanois will have to settle for the less famous Bob as his M.C.
The Hamilton Music Awards has decided to kick off the festivities this year by welcoming home one of their own. Daniel Lanois, musician and producer, has now added filmmaker to his resume. His new, 90-minute documentary is called “Here Is What Is”, and premiered to acclaim at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. This is its first showing since then, appropriately back at the place it all started for Lanois. My role is to welcome the crowd, and introduce a man who, for once, truly needs no introduction to the audience. Many family members and close friends are in the crowd, and Lanois clearly relishes the chance to spend time with them.
The film is a wonder. Lanois and his small team decided to try to capture the creative process, to expose the path that leads to fine art. It pretty much documents a year in the life of this travelling musician and producer, as he moves from continent to continent, spending time with musician friends, some famous, and all fabulous musicians. The film starts with Lanois’s keyboard hero, The Band’s Garth Hudson, as we simply see him create a masterwork at the keyboard. While most filmmakers would give us several angles, and edit the piece, this film throws away those hyper rules of attention span, instead focusing only on Hudson’s hands, allowing the music to speak to us, at length. It is one of many surprising filmmaking techniques that make the movie stand out.
We are introduced to Brian Blade, the Louisiana drummer who has worked with Lanois for fifteen years, a subtle and highly musical partner. Blade in turns takes us to his home, where his minister father joins the band for a jam of praise. We meet Lanois’s mentor and eventual partner, the famous producer Brian Eno, as he discusses how art comes from nothing at first, simple ideas that talented people develop. Eno famously brought Lanois with him to produce U2 two decades ago, and we join this close unit of six as they work on the next band album. We’re treated to new music at every stop, shown little tricks, such as how Lanois ‘plays’ the studio mixing console, bringing the faders up and down, creating new mixes on the fly.
It’s a primer on recording, and a look at how serious musicians approach the creative process. All these people take great joy in playing, feed off each other’s energy and excitement, and are completely devoted to the art. It works extremely well as a film too, allowing us many moments to enjoy the music, and an unspoken narrative from beginning to end, much like a song.
Lanois won’t be using the normal distribution system for his film. Hamilton was a testing ground; the idea is to take the film on the road, like a tour. He’ll show the movie, then do a seminar, sometimes question-and-answer, and maybe if you’re lucky, bring some instruments and players. That’s what we were treated to the following morning, as Lanois kicked off Friday with a two-hour session for workshop guests at the festival. The workshops were aimed at young, aspiring musicians or music industry employees of the future, most of the 200-plus people in their teens and early twenties. Lanois and Brian Blade went through rhythms, musicial history, instruments, even effects tricks on stage. We heard them play nasty, James Brown-funk, plus classical music on the pedal steel. Lanois told us echo tricks he learned from The Edge, and showed one of the secrets of Jimi Hendrix’s sound, turning up really loud, but playing soft, which gave him his trembling effect. In response to a question about producing Dylan, Lanois raised his normally-whisper-quiet voice to emphesize that a producer must “be prepared, be ready. Don’t even let them see you plugging in shit. Dylan’s all business, and doesn’t want to waste time. And I had prepared in advance!”
In one evening and one morning, Lanois has presented a new film, and shared many secrets about making and producing some of the finest music of the last 25 years, including the #20 album in the Top 100 Canadian Albums, his “Acadie”. Not a bad way to start a music conference, eh? And to think people outside the city often react with surprise when they here that Hamilton puts on its own music awards. Lanois’s appearance is just the first I’ll mention as the conference continues. Believe me, I’ve already seen and met many more excellent artists. See you next blog.