Master producer Daniel Lanois cedes the spotlight to the sunny gospel of Johnny Shepherd.
There’s a triangle of the Western Hemisphere that holds the key to the sound that master producer Daniel Lanois brings to the records he writes. It begins in Eastern Canada where Lanois grew up, a bilingual environment that bred the archetypal heartiness of Ontario with the French artistic traditions of Quebec. From there the trail of his influences moves southwest to New Orleans. In the ’90s Lanois owned and operated Kingsway Studio in the French Quarter and recorded some of music’s biggest icons (you can google his production accolades, they are tiptop). While he was producing albums from artists from around the world, he was soaking in the influence of Louisiana from its similar French influence to his native Quebec, to the rich aural tradition of the baptist church. The organ and gospel singing were transfused into his blood as was the Mardi Gras rumble of rhythm. The third corner of this triangle is Jamaica where Lanois resides part-time. The bounce of reggae can be felt in many places but the main source that he draws from is the dub side of the scene. The man is renowned for the richness, depth, and ingenuity of his sonic backgrounds and much of this can be attributed to the influence of the Rock.
His first solo album Acadie (1988) fully showcased his Canadian roots, peppering in quaint French ditties with profound Canadiana to paddle your canoe to. His 2008 masterpiece Here Is What Is is guided by Shreveport Louisiana native and jazz drumming guru Brian Blade and features his father preacher Brady Blade Sr. belting out his finest gospel on ‘This May Be the Last Time’. In 2010, he recruited the “deeply soulful contralto” of Trixie Whitley to release the Black Dub project with many touches of the Caribbean island’s dub character. Take this gumbo and stir in a dose of surrealism harvested from the heavens by way of his pedal steel and you’ve got Lanois’ secret sauce formula.
Heavy Sun finds Lanois at the crossroads of these eclectic influences. As a producer, one of his biggest strengths is sourcing great collaborators and conjuring inspired performances from them. The focal point of this particular album is not Lanois but rather church choir director and organist Johnny Shepherd. Discovered at Brady Blade Sr.’s Shreveport Zion Baptist church, Shepherd brings an indelible joy and soul to the proceedings. He takes the lead vocal on many of the songs and his organ is given a wide sonic birth allowing master recordist Lanois to capture every nuance of the divinely linked instrument. The “Heavy Sun orchestra” is rounded out by frequent collaborators bassist Jim Wilson, steel guitarist Rocco DeLuca and the aforementioned Brian Blade. Heavy Sun is about that long, hard-earned joy. Not the fleeting gratifications of the moment but a deeply intrinsic joy that transcends faiths to hit a universal spirituality through sound.
The first notes of the piece are given to Shepherd with a lightly bouncy, almost carnival theme played above while the deep, rich bass pedals anchor things below. ‘Dance On’ implores the listener out of their seat and out of their shell. The orchestra supports Shepard with a choral backing with the ethos of a bluegrass band all singing around one mic. Lanois’ trademark finger-slapped Les Paul makes the briefest of entrances to add brief harmonies to the lead organ. Brian Blade’s deeply pocketed chops make their entrance on track 2, the single ‘Power’. His beat rolls along steadily yet allows for wide spaces in which the band can interject; from the groovy bobbing and weaving of the bass pedals to the darting chirps and shimmers of Lanois’ production to the sway of strings mixed with pedal steel samples that give the song a drifting drama. The track was inspired by a message from longtime friend and collaborator Brian Eno about the injustices occurring in Uganda. The simple statement ‘The people got the power!” is interjected by lines referencing back to lyrics from Here Is What Is. “Not fighting anymore/not fighting any less/’Til the work’s all done/no time to rest”.
‘Every Nation’ lives up to its international title by drawing from all corners of the Lanois’ triangle. The intoxicating swampy organ holds the heat in the air as a nimble samba rumbles in the drums. The opening shout-out drips with dubby delay. Lanois enters with the tale of a Mi’kmaq coming from Nova Scotia to make his way in Toronto, intermingling these tropical musical motifs into the stories of native Canadians. A testament to the value of multicultural artistic expression in helping to show our collective commonality.
‘Please Don’t Try’ needs little more than Shepherd and his organ. He lays down truth and knowledge with that glorious gospel passion, yet never invokes the “G” word. He keeps it to a simple song of love and devotion. The orchestra merely provides tasteful background vocals to lift Shepherd’s message. ‘Tumbling Stone’ also embraces this minimalist approach with Shepherd and Lanois duetting to the playful keys. The rhythm is able to reach a certain hypnotic quality without the sharp transients of a drummer. Instead, it’s the suction-like rebound of the bass notes that drives this wanderer’s hymn.
‘Angels Watching’ floats like drifting summer clouds, left to the whims of the jet streams. ‘(Under the) Heavy Sun’ uses a trick Lanois loves to pull out where he’ll pan to either side two different drum beats that are complimentary but far from identical to give this naturally occurring, unpredictable echo effect. Between the ricocheting drum patterns, the vocalists breathe an airy, ghostly harmony. ‘Out of Sight’ rounds out the record with the kind of resilient, optimistic closer you’d expect from such a record. The band wraps with a “what does not kill me, makes me strong” message bolstered by Shepherd’s steadfast organ.
To some degree, Heavy Sun is a Daniel Lanois record in the way that Dr. Dre’s records are “Dr. Dre records”. He contributes vocals when necessary and masterminds the structure but has no qualms with turning over the spotlight to his fellow musicians. When you’re working with such talents, you’d be a fool not to. Lanois has remarked that someone had sent him Johnny Shepherd to make the album they were dreaming of making. And indeed, Shepherd takes the spotlight with his soulful vocals and his organ with a feel that you can’t buy. Lanois allows the players to reach the pinnacle of their talents with such pristinely recorded and mixed instrumentation that every engineer should be studying these recordings for how to attain some of the very purest tones. We are able to appreciate Shepherd’s playing that much more because we hear every little nuance of the instrument in elegant detail. On this record, Lanois adds some of his signature ethereal elements but far less than on previous records. Though there aren’t big hits like ‘The Maker’ or ‘The Messenger’ and it doesn’t quite have the life-encompassing scope of Here Is What Is, Heavy Sun still sits quite comfortably in his catalogue. A life-affirming investigation of profound joy in an age when it is needed.