Sounding like a guttural, lung-charred flipside to European tourmates Spiritualized (minus the Phil Spector gigantism), the British electronica double act Soulsavers transformed the Troubadour in early December into a humid, awestruck congregation. As the audience funneled in from a cold drizzle, the duo (producers Rich Machin and Ian Glover), along with their touring band and featured vocalist/resident dark star Mark Lanegan, smoldered within a musical haze of guilt, lust, broken faith, and Sisyphean lunges at an uncertain salvation, shot through with a glistening mainline to classic blues-rock and gospel.
When the house lights dropped, the album version of instrumental “Ask the Dust” began to pour from the P.A. as everyone but Lanegan emerged from the gloom, setting up beneath the languid piano lines and drum-looped arterial throb of the music. The backing track was quickly consumed by the live band, which ripped the song from its spaghetti-western pulse and ruptured it with waves of squalling guitar noise before segueing into the tribal thump of “Ghosts of You and Me.” Amid the bass line ripple and seething guitar, Lanegan stepped out from the shadowplay of stage lights and house security to the edge of the stage, his eyes closed as he loosed what nearly everyone there had come to hear: the nicotine scrape of his deep baritone, a voice flecked with doom and nuance.
As the band launched the bluesy, bareskin midnight train of Junior Kimbrough’s “All Night Long,” Lanegan’s cavernous howl charged the venue with the electricity of sin, regret, and the search for redemption while reveling in transgression -- the same sweaty glossolalic hum that rends its way through the heart of a raucous tent revival. This reached a peak mid-set when backup soul singers Wendi Rose and Carmen Short bathed Lanegan in gospel wails as he growled his way through the erotically charged sex-as-salvation barnburner “Paper Money.” “Don’t you ever leave me, baby/ I believe that you could save me/ Heaven, just a taste/ Heaven’s so far away,” he rasped while Rose’s and Short’s voices whipped against him as an ecstatic counterpoint, before all three vocals collapsed into an exhausted post-coital vortex of weary menace with a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy.”
After a brief pause, the slow trickle of piano drops opened the spectral, haunted cover of Lanegan’s own “Kingdom of Rain,” a song shaded with memory, shame, and defeat, and it served as the prelude for the set’s harrowing centerpiece, “Spiritual.” Gentle guitar lines drifted around Lanegan like mercury as he stood at the stage’s edge, coruscating arcs of yellow light streaming from the ceiling while the song’s slow sunrise of loss and repentance bloomed around the band. “My love was untrue/ Now all I have is you/ Jesus, oh Jesus, I don’t want to die alone,” Lanegan whispered, in a powerfully understated performance devoid of irony or histrionics, with Machin and Glover’s lustrous soundscape of ringing synths and looping piano riffs carrying the song to its ethereal conclusion before the lights slowly died around the stage.
For their encore, the Soulsavers unleashed their signature tune: the crashing, yearning hymn, ‘Revival.” “Gonna be a revival tonight/ Lord, let there be a revival,” Lanegan shouted, his tale of the demon life holding the crowd in its rhythmic sway as chest-caving bass runs snaked around their undulating hips, while Rose and Short pleaded, “I need you so, it’s sin/ Put an end to my suffering/ I wanna see a revival tonight,” before the song built to its pounding, shattering climax. Lanegan then immediately backed out of the lights and into the backstage eclipse, leaving Rose and Short to lead the Soulsavers through their joyous, sweat-soaked closing cover of “Midnight Special.” It allowed a set mired in desperation and misery (however arresting) to have, if not a happy ending, than one that at least allowed a bit of light shine through.
Which seemed to be the point. The set wasn’t just reverential to simmering soul music or blues rock, or even to a particular deity; if anything, it was about catharsis via intensity -- the meaning, or hint of hope, that can be found in unflinching introspection and the beauty wrenched from misery.
And, if nothing else, they simply rocked like all hell.