By CLINT BROWNLEE
For The Beachcomber
Mark Lanegan, one of the Northwest’s most storied and prolific musical figures, will take the Vashon Theatre stage on Sunday, May 6. His appearance is the first of a week-long series of shows put on by islander Debra Heesch.
The baritone-voiced singer-songwriter will be supported by longtime drummer-turned-solo artist Mark Pickerel, a fellow Ellensburg, Washington, native. The two recorded songs with Kurt Cobain in the late 1980s and were bandmates in Screaming Trees, which gained some national notoriety during Seattle’s “grunge” heyday.
Pickerel left Screaming Trees in 1991, and the band split up in 2000. Both artists went on to craft deep, varied musical resumes — without playing live together again. With both on the Vashon Theatre bill, that becomes a possibility. Recently calling from Ellensburg, where Pickerel has returned to live, he was careful to temper expectations.
“We won’t be performing together outside of maybe me singing background vocals on a song or two. Anyone who’s hoping to get a taste of a Screaming Trees reunion might be disappointed,” he said.
Even if Lanegan and Pickerel only perform separately, the event will give attendees a glimpse of two renowned artists who have built solo careers that outshine their old band.
After Screaming Trees dissolved, Lanegan focused on the solo career he’d started via Seattle record label Sub Pop in 1990. Where his band had leaned into heavy guitar chords and psychedelic atmospheres, he explored smokier, softer, blues-drenched sounds.
Between self-penned solo albums, Lanegan also recorded raw, endearing covers, including Buck Owens’ “Together Again” and John Cale’s “I’m Not the Loving Kind.”
And in more recent years, he has employed electronic beats and New Wave-era influences in his original work. His tenth solo effort, the alternately hard-rocking and melodically synthesized “Gargoyle,” was released in 2017.
One thing has remained constant throughout Lanegan’s solo career: his focus on the underbelly — of the psyche, of human vice, of society. Looking back at his early recordings in the 2017 book, “I Am the Wolf: Lyrics & Writings,” he notes, “Inspiration for the songs was born of sadness and uncertainty … alcohol, depression, addiction … a preoccupation with death as well as an ever-pervasive sense of impending doom … feel-good stuff.”
In that final phrase, Lanegan reveals his shifty sense of humor. That is part of Lanegan’s appeal. He is a mysterious but likeable performer; his crystalized-molasses vocals and frank, dark lyrics convey a lifetime of adversity and hard-won wisdom. You want him to come out ahead.
Other artists appreciate Lanegan’s talents as well, and seek him out for lead vocals, backing vocals, duets and entire albums. Between his own records, he’s partnered with an eclectic roster of musicians and bands — including electronic music maestro Moby, Belle & Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell, Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, Soulsavers and Queens of the Stone Age.
Lanegan’s sound and sensibility have proven adaptable to multiple genres — and timeless. He is frequently compared to legendary performers Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Anthony Bourdain, who visited Vashon last year for his CNN show Parts Unknown, has called Lanegan “one of the greatest living singer-songwriters making music today.” It’s his voice you hear in the show’s opening credits.
Lanegan will be accompanied by Seattle guitarist Jeff Fielder, who has toured with the vocalist since 2011. (He may look familiar; Fielder has played multiple shows, with the Garth Reeves Band and other acts, at Vashon venues.) His fretwork — alternately spare and haunting, intricate and heavy — complements the singer’s heady vocals.
The duo’s performances in recent years have been simple, stark and affecting: Lanegan immobile behind a microphone at center stage, Fielder slightly behind, pacing, deftly working an electric guitar. Black stage, black backdrop, no distractions. The guitarist, on the phone, compared his approach to supporting Lanegan with their stripped-down shows: “The idea is to elevate [him] and put yourself second — but to find a voice within the material. You don’t want people to notice things. You want it to be magic.”
The magic will begin on May 6 with Mark Pickerel. The original Screaming Trees member — and drummer on last year’s Grammy-nominated “You Don’t Own Me Anymore” by The Secret Sisters — is now an accomplished guitarist and singer.
After leaving the band, Pickerel played and recorded with Neko Case, Brandi Carlile, the Dusty 45s and others — and always had designs on being his own act. In 2006, his first solo record was released, and he’s recorded two more since. His sensibility is a mix of folk, Americana, classic country and rock. His vocals, like Lanegan’s, have drawn comparisons to Leonard Cohen.
Though Pickerel has a fourth album in the works and a weekly busking gig at Sea-Tac Airport, playing Vashon and other Northwest cities with Lanegan is not something he takes lightly. He spoke thoughtfully about their history, clearly still impacted.
“It’s rare for me to have something on the calendar that conjures up so many ideas and emotions and goals,” he said,“on a personal and professional and musical level.”
The demise of Screaming Trees can be explained very simply: The band members did not get along well. But they respected each other, and Pickerel said he thought of the other members as “family.” He added, “Mark [Lanegan], specifically, was always like an older brother.”
Their early-life kinship must be remembered fondly by Lanegan, as well. As Pickerel told it, Lanegan recently contacted him about a possible tour.
“He said, ‘Hey Pickerel, do you know of any clubs, venues or promoters out your way who might be interested in booking a show for me?’”
Pickerel had some ideas for eastern Washington locations, and “put on a promoter’s hat” to book a show in Ellensburg. It sold out, Pickerel said, in two minutes. So he set up another, and knew more were in the works — Seattle, Bellingham, Olympia and Vashon.
“I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell [Lanegan] that I’d be available to open up any shows or play drums for anything, if he so desired,” Pickerel said with a smile in his voice. “He said, ‘Let’s have you open up as many shows as you want.’” Pickerel jumped at the chance, and in a matter of weeks, the tour was booked — and mostly sold out.
“There wasn’t a lot of time for promoters to get strategic,” Pickerel said. “I think you saw grassroots shows develop in venues that might not normally host an act of his caliber.”
“Grassroots” is the perfect adjective to describe Heesch’s work to bring Lanegan and other performers to Vashon. She puts in the effort on her own time, after her “day job” as a special events manager with Seattle Theater Group. She builds relationships with musicians and agents. She shares information about the events on Facebook. She even offers her guest house to visiting artists.
In an email, Heesch said, “I do this on a volunteer basis [because] I feel that we need more touring musicians to visit Vashon. I provide housing, fill the refrigerator with food and give them my ORCA card to get to the island.”
Her effort is paying off for Vashon music enthusiasts like herself.
“More artists want to come play on the island,” she said. “I’m building relationships and it’s working.”
The shows she’s lined up in May serve as proof: Lanegan on May 6; the Mike Love Reggae Band with Ron Artis II, Cas Haley, Sarah Christine and special guest Clinton Fearon at Vashon Theatre on May 7; Americana singer-songwriter Joshua James at the Roasterie on May 9; and eclectic singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey at Snapdragon on May 14.
As of this writing, all-ages general admission seats are still available on the Vashon Theatre website for Lanegan’s appearance. Tickets are $30, plus a $1 booking fee.
Fans of Screaming Trees may not witness a reunion on May 6, but there will surely be cause for nostalgia. As Fielder noted, “There will be some nods to the past. More than usual. It’s rare for [Lanegan] to want to dig deep into older material, but there very well could be some of that.”
You needn’t be familiar with Lanegan or Pickerel’s early efforts, though. Heesch has provided an opportunity to say you saw world-class artists in their prime — on Vashon’s humble theater stage.