April 2007

Loreena McKennitt
April 15, 2007 Massey Hall Toronto
Arias and Celtic Legends
by Andy Frank
My beloved Helen introduced me to Loreena McKennitt’s music in an era before World Music, back when it was still New Age. I confess to avoiding the living room whenever I’d hear Loreena strumming her harp and singing soprano arias about Celtic legends, preferring instead to blast Pearl Jam in my downstairs office. Five years or so later, as we rolled down the bleak 417 between Ottawa and Montreal, Helen slipped The Book of Secrets CD into the car audio system. 45 minutes later, I was a fan.

The truth is, I had to get past Loreena’s voice and the lyrics. Not that there’s anything wrong with them — I am just not a fan of arias sung in English, and I generally care not a lick for the subjects she explores. Pretension meets boredom. You see, I’m a pretty plain guy, however, I do know what moves me, and in Loreena’s case, it is the incredible instrumentation and gorgeous music featured in her recordings. Once I began appreciating those aspects of her work, the voice and lyrics eventually earned their way into my stone-cold heart. Today, I love the whole package.

So it was with great anticipation that we settled into our comfy seats at Aisle 4 of Massey Hall on April 15th. We had never seen her perform, and I believe it has been years since she graced any stage in this area. Her latest CD, An Ancient Muse, is her first studio release in a decade. The room was quite full, but not sold out — there was another performance on April 16th. Four minutes after the scheduled start-time, she graced the stage, looking timeless, like she walked in to Massey Hall from the cover of a 1980’s CD. Her gait was graceful, her long red hair flowing, her every cell confident, stage-savvy, in charge. She was accompanied by nine musicians, and at least twenty-five instruments, many of which rarely share the same stage.

Loreena alternated between grand piano, accordion, harp and electric keyboard, and she shared the front centre of the stage with the lovely, charismatic and brilliant cellist Caroline Lavelle. The extreme left and right of the stage were graced by Brian Hughes on electric and acoustic guitars, oud and Celtic bouzouki (often alternating between 2 or 3 of these instruments during the same song) and the show-stopping Hugh Marsh on violin. Behind Loreena, and behind a Plexiglas curtain, was drummer Tal Bergman, and on either side of him, the gorgeous rhythm section that drives the McKennitt engine: Tim Landers on double and electric bass, Ben Grossman on hurdy gurdy and percussion, and Rick Lazar on percussion. Finally, Donald Quan played viola, keyboards, tabla and accordion, and the amazing Sokratis Sinopolopous played a variety of lyra and Greek lute (phew!!). Pity the sound guys, for this must be one hell of a sound check.
Loreena McKennitt

Loreena alternates between singer, musician, and subtle conductor of her orchestra. With a tilt of her head, we all knew where to focus our attention next. Alternating leads by any and all of the players kept the show fresh and flowing, and to Loreena’s credit, the crowd-pleasing musical highlights were all provided by the musicians’ solos, especially the cellist and violinist. But let’s not kid ourselves, this was all about the monumental talent, precision, and brilliant music of Loreena McKennitt. Her voice was unspoiled by time, her play flawless, and her songs even more moving in person than on record. This was not a pop or world or Celtic or new age show. It was a symphony orchestra of international flavours, and absolutely required the kind of attention to detail Ms. McKennitt is legendary for wielding. Yes, the show lacked a little dynamism and animation, but made up for it in brilliance and execution. Loreena McKennitt is a national treasure, and it was an honour to witness the performance of this artist in the prime of her life.

A final footnote: I loved the program insert we were handed at Massey Hall, which not only gave due credit to each musician (complete with websites for each and what wild instrument they played), but also included a detailed set list. I contemplated the pros and cons of knowing what song was coming up in advance, of knowing that I wouldn’t be hearing a favourite, but thrilled that I would be hearing other favourites. Given the tradition of encores, there is still a certain element of mystery and hope. I recommend this strategy for other acts when applicable. It needn’t be expensive, and makes for an amazing souvenir.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Andy Frank
• • • • • •
The Live Music Report
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Andy Frank is the host and producer of Take 5It's Alive on CIUT 89.5 FM

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