Reviewed by David Lynch, Fri., March 14, 2003
Daniel LanoisAustin Convention Center, Thursday, March 13
A SXSW keynote speaker must be two things: well-known enough to attract people, and experienced enough to captivate them for 40 minutes. No problem on either front for Daniel Lanois, who -- like Ray Davies and Robbie Robertson in years past -- gave a memorable keynote. At first, butter-knife bluesman Cedell Davis roused the ballroom with his from-the-heart 12-bar drone, joined later by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck on bass. Lanois then took the stage, surrounded by guitar, Omnichord, and pedal steel. A musician's producer, Lanois favors feeling over technique, mood over studio sterility, and has helped artists like Luscious Jackson, Robbie Robertson, and Peter Gabriel further their vision. He's also a damn fine songwriter, with two albums of gorgeous music under his belt, and a third on the way. The Canadian began with an eight-minute allegorical biography that was delivered with poetic intensity. Melodic and symbolic, Lanois' prepared remarks were like his music, honest and full of life. This became the embodied theme of his talk, bringing childlike enthusiasm back to music, reinforced by his use of the third person: "little Danny Lanois" and "the kid." Lanois' metaphor was of a miner getting coal dust under his nails and on his face while digging for the mother lode. He talked about active listening and finding one's own voice while plumbing the shafts of creative expression. Putting belief into practice, Lanois then channeled his Sho-Bud 10-stringer in a free rendition of "Transmitter," a solo pedal-steel number from his soon-to-be-released album Shine (Anti). Opening up to a Phil Donahue-style Q&A, Lanois encountered questions ranging from inspired to sycophantic. Responding, Lanois drilled deep into his storied history, with anecdotes of Neil Young flying to New Orleans to cameo on Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball, recording 11 musicians live in the studio for Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, taping Rick James in his mother's basement back in the day, spending two years working on U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, and tracking the Neville Brothers in his New Orleans apartment. Replying to a question about songs off his newest, Lanois picked up his gold-top Les Paul and played Shine's autobiographical "Sometimes." The soul miner then closed with a salve for the recording industry's doom and gloom: "At any given moment there's a new window of opportunity. It's up to the innovators to find that glimmer of light, kick the door open, and do something fresh."