Thursday, March 19, 2015

McLachlan proves humble host, indelible vocalist at long-awaited return

When Sarah McLachlan walked on stage Wednesday night at Ovens Auditorium, she didn't do it with big bounding intro music or launch into a fiery opener, she simply stood at the mic, welcomed the crowd, and introduced the first song. There was no pop singer pretension or facade of "entertainer" and the crowd didn't need any props, choreography or distracting bling. They were there for one reason - to hear that showstopping, emotional powerhouse of a voice.

After opening with "In Your Shoes" - a single from her latest album, "Shine On," written for MalalaYousafzai - McLachlan shared that she wanted to remove the "us and them scenario" from the concert setting. She did so by creating a sort of interactive environment answering questions submitted at the merch table and inviting social media contest winners on stage where she gave them all hugs, took selfies and answered questions including, "Have you ever fallen in love with a woman?" Sorry girls.

Introducing songs like "Monsters" and "Loving You Is Easy," she sounded like a woman scorned who hasn't lost her sense of humor. She told stories about her struggles in romance, losing her father, parenting two girls (ages 13 and 7) who do not think she's the cool rock star that her audience does and meeting her new beau (reportedly former hockey player Geoff Courtnall). She even gushed about the message of the new "Cinderella" movie. By the end of the night it felt like McLachlan was just like us. Until, of course, she launched into the operatic vocal exercise that is "Fear." Um, well, no she's not just like us. Her voice is so good I'm not even sure she's human. And at 47 she looks about 35.  If she hadn't shared earlier that she'd taken Dayquil and had to rehearse for two hours before the show because of her illness, no one would've been the wiser.

McLachlan and her four-piece band (which seemed more stripped down than when I saw her at the height of her popularity in the `90s) played two sets drawing heavily on 2014's "Shine On" as well as best sellers "Fumbling Toward Ecstacy" and "Surfacing" with a few stops at 2003's "Afterglow" and 2010's "Laws of Illusion."

The only hiccup was visual. The fairly simple set relied on a smattering of different types of lighting, but the blocky LED screens which projected distracting watery images seemed like they'd be better suited to an outdoor amphitheater setting.

The tracks she chose from "Fumbling" weren't always the ones you'd expect - although anyone that owned that album knew every track on it. The band altered the arrangements of older songs like "Hold On" slightly, which seemed more "up" than the original. "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" always doubled as the emotional climax of that album as well the odd track that wouldn't have fit as a single. It filled that place in the set as well turning into a shuffling psychedelic epic (McLachlan even flexed her whammy bar) that would have served as the concert closer at a jam band show.

"Stupid" (from 2003's "Afterglow"), which closed the first set, boiled to the place where the arena rock of Muse meets "Fumbling"-era McLachlan. It was as heavy as the night got. There was no need for earplugs as the volume was relatively quiet and made space for McLachlan's voice. Songs like "Sweet Surrender" and "Possession," which closed the regular set, had some of the crowd dancing on its feet although most remained reserved, glued to their seats even during the closing sing-along of "Ice Cream."

"Angel" - forever tied to McLachlan's ASPCA commercials (3 hours of her life which raised $30 million she shared earlier) - featured bassist Butterfly Boucher, an Australian recording artist and songwriter in her own right who has played Tremont Music Hall as a solo artist. "Beautiful Girl," written for her daughter, and "The Sound That Love Makes" helped finish out the set on a positive note.

Although the band was smaller and the room less awe-inspiring than the Fox Theatre in Atlanta where I first saw her in October 1997, I left thinking similar thoughts. While that Atlanta show confirmed what a remarkable and natural live vocalist McLachlan is, I left Wednesday thinking she is an equally remarkable person.