"If the devil had a voice, this would be it," remarked one of the younger fans out to see ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan's set at the El Rey on Wednesday. It was an appropriate comment, considering that Lanegan sings about the devil. A lot. Old Scratch would be proud of that voice, a smoky, whiskey-etched baritone that first earned Lanegan accolades with the Trees' 1992 hit "Nearly Lost You" and which seems to have only increased in power in the intervening years.
Lifting his gorgeous, almost-orchestral arrangements to a kind of hard psychedelic shimmer, Lanegan's vocals and strong personal gravity propelled his six-piece hard-rock ensemble through an expansive series of treatments on love, death and spiritual atonement for wrongs born of passion. Ex-Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers frontman Greg Dulli sat in on keyboards but in this setting was far from the limelight.
Opening with "Pendulum," Lanegan drilled straight into the torment at the heart of his best work, howling out, "Oh my Lord, don't you bother me/ I'm as tired as a man can be." His songs are filled with religious iconography, where death and devils walk into homes in the shape of men, and like gospel music they're at once both personal and familiar like a church standard.
But when he cranks up, as on "No Easy Action," the music transforms instantly from Nick Cave-style macabre to towering rock. With roaring lead guitar work by Troy Van Leeuwen, the guitarist from A Perfect Circle who plays with Lanegan in Queens of the Stone Age, the teeth-gnashing assumes a heroic scope as he cries, "When all is done and turned to dust / And insects nest inside my bones / I see
Lanegan may be "going home," a reference to salvation on his tune "On Jesus' Program," but his work, and this band, may be breaking through to a new life and a new sense of purpose for post-grunge hard rock.