• Review

REVIEW: Sarah McLachlan with Feist at PNC Pavilion

Photo Cred: Michael Gabbard Photography

It’s hard to believe, but Sarah McLachlan has been in the music business for almost forty years. Discovered at age 17, she recorded her debut album Touch in 1987 (it was released in 1988 and re-released in 1989). I remember reading a review at the time and being intrigued; the reviewer probably compared her to Kate Bush, and hey, that’s all it took because… Kate. I became an instant fan. There’s much to love about that debut, but at age 19, her talent was embryonic. Search out the Canadian version of the video for “Vox” on YouTube and you can see a teenaged McLachlan pushing at the edges of what she would become. The music is appealing, and her voice is fine, but overall, the atmosphere tends to be thin, fussy and constrained. You can hear the sheen of late 80’s production tropes clamping down on an ambitious talent. Solace (1991) was an evolution and stood out in a musical landscape soon to be dominated by grunge, male-fronted groups and loud guitars.

But the big leap forward was 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and it rightfully vaulted her to international stardom and appeal. Three decades later, it holds up beautifully as her first fully cohesive work. McLachlan’s vocal range and control are assured, the writing and arrangements are polished and tight, the lyrics are mature and poetic. She said it’s her favorite album because it came at a time when she was single for the first time in her adult life, and she hadn’t had children yet. You can feel her come into her own over the twelve tracks.

It’s potentially dicey revisiting beloved material, especially in a live context, but it’s also a rare opportunity for an artist to present their story, beginning to end without the listener skipping parts. Every time I see artists perform an album in toto (e.g. Sonic Youth- Daydream Nation, GZA – Liquid Swords, The Breeders – Last Splash, Slint- Spiderland, etc.) it makes me appreciate the hard work and tough choices involved in sequencing, creating an album theme, production, etc. In an age of short attention spans, it’s refreshing to have no control over the sequencing and to be “forced” to appreciate a work in its totality.

McLachlan took the stage in a white flowy dress, reminiscent of a Greek muse and the crowd roared with appreciation. While Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is the main draw of the tour, songs from Surfacing, Shine On, and Afterglow frontload the set. She joked, “I wanted to build the anticipation”. She opened with powerhouses “Sweet Surrender” and “Building a Mystery” and was clearly thrilled and appreciative at the huge response. She frequently burst into a radiant smile at the joy of performing and the energy of the crowd. Huge video screens behind her shifted between performance shots and atmospheric images.

McLachlan’s vocal timbre has held up over the years, and she can easily glide from tawny alto to dusky mezzo to airy soprano and back. She paused occasionally to sip some lemon and honey water and said she’s been struggling with keeping her voice healthy on the tour, but the water along with steroids were working to keep things in check. If she was struggling, it didn’t show. Her voice remained strong over the demanding two-hour set.

While her voice is her main instrument, McLachlan plays guitar and piano as well and switched back and forth between them all evening. Her plaintive piano playing on “Answer” with her on piano and her band singing background vocals around one mic was especially beautiful.

Between songs she talked openly about family therapy, failed relationships, strong friendships and the power of music. It was sweet to hear her give shout outs to her father (“Song for My Father”) and oldest daughter (“Beautiful Girl”). McLachlan was humble and touched as she thanked the crowd for allowing her to keep doing music, claiming it saved her. She was so moved by the transformative power of music that she started the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Vancouver to give kids the chance to learn music for free and give them the same opportunity to embrace music.

As the first set was ending with the lilting “Witness”, Sarah danced off the stage, swishing her long dress as the band vamped and her bass player took over vocal duties, pushing the song and turning it into a jam that recalled Mazzy Starr’s classic “Fade into You”. As the song ended, McLachlan reemerged in pleather leggings and a beaded top (her daughter asked her what she was going to wear on tour. When Sarah showed her the white dress, she said, “Ok, but where’s your costume change?” Sarah cracked, “I’m not Taylor Swift, sweetie!” But they went to her closet and picked out the outfit).

With costume change complete, the band launched into performing Fumbling Towards Ecstasy top to bottom. “Possession” was instantly gripping, and McLachlan leaned into the song with all her power and experience. She’s an assured and generous performer and is confident enough to give ample space to the songs. Where “Vox” was packed with filigrees, songs like “Ice” and “Circle” had abundant empty space to allow the songs to breathe and for her voice to stretch out while pulsing bass and airy synth tastefully appoint it. Sometimes it takes getting older to gain the confidence to step back and embrace a Bauhaus less- is- more ethic. She was only 25 when it was released; she’s literally lived another lifetime since then and the intervening years look, and sound, good on her.

Depending on mood, years ago I might have skipped over a song like “Elsewhere” on CD, but it gained new life in concert and stretched out into a long jam reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Down by the River,” McLachlan playing beautiful piano as her guitarists threaded spiky leads through the song.

Every song was beautifully recreated and enhanced and it was a rare treat to hear and feel them on a big scale. “Circle” still slaps, and “Ice Cream” was a singalong crowd fave.

As they closed out the album, Sarah thanked her crew, her band, and the crowd. As an encore, she plays a new song, “Gravity” and promises new music soon before closing out with a beautiful rendition of “Angel.”

Sarah’s opener, fellow Canadian Feist, was an absolute delight. Her set at Cincinnati’s 2018 Homecoming Festival was one of that fest’s several highlights. Her breakout, “Let it Die” turned 20 this year and she kicked off her set on acoustic guitar with that album’s bouncy “Mushaboom”. She pushed the energy higher with each song, bashing her Martin guitar on “A Man Is Not His Song” and gorgeously looping her voice through choral effects. After switching to electric guitar, she amped up the mood with a rousing “My Moon, My Man”, slashing furiously at her electric guitar with almost punk rock intensity before bending down and manipulating her voice through effects pedals with her hands.

Feist gave Cincy some love, calling The National “your hometown heroes”, and telling a story about filming her video for “I Feel it All” in Cincinnati twenty years ago. She knew the Rozzis (Cincinnati’s legendary fireworks family), and they worked out a fireworks setup where she danced through a field of fireworks on a ski hill. Feist dances joyously and mimes as the fireworks go off in sequence. It’s utterly charming, check it out.

McLachlan created and headlined Lilith Fair (a female-centric music festival) from 1997-1999 that was successful, for a time, at changing the music industry’s view of female performers and how much of an audience they could command. A 2010 attempted revival failed, and McLachlan declared the time for Lilith Fair had passed; audience tastes had changed, the industry was continuing to rapidly evolve. Maybe. Probably. But a sold-out crowd of enthusiastic fans at PNC proved there is still mass appeal and a need for performers like Sarah McLachlan. Maybe it just takes a new wave to take up her mantle. Thirty-one years ago (on Fumbling for Ecstasy’s “Wait) she sang “…[E]very generation yields the newborn hope unjaded by their years.” Let’s hope so.

 Sweet Surrender
 Building a Mystery
I Will Remember You
Song for My Father
World on Fire
Beautiful Girl
  Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Good Enough
Hold On
Ice Cream
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy


Sarah McLachlan at PNC Pavilion

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