Last night Loreena McKennitt was in town, and I would not let this opportunity go by without going to see her (her last concert was 8 years ago…)
For her swing through the SF bay area I chose to attend the concert at the Marin Civic Centre. For one, it was the smaller of the venues, and for two, it is, of course, a Frank Lloyd Wright building. I had never been up close to visit it (having seen it only from Hwy 101 and in film) so I jumped at the chance. Plus seeing her inside an FLW-designed building? Double awesome.
Revvie and I arrived early, and walked around the Civic Centre, taking photos while I sought out interesting architectural details and got a feel for the building (which was quite different from previous FLW buildings I’d been to, not only in its scale). Sadly to say, the building is not in the most excellent of shape, needing some upkeep and having had a few trucks not heed the clearance warnings for the ‘bridge’ elements. Being a Sunday, the building itself was closed, so we did not get a chance to experience the building on the inside, though we did catch a glimpse through the main entrance… and that was certainly enough to put the bug in my mind to return on a day it is open to experience the space within.
With the outdoor architecture tour complete, we headed back to the theatre proper and settled inside (after our little interior architecture tour — it is a nice theatre). Our seats were fairly decent, row 11, off the side but in such a small theatre the off-centre seats were not too off-kilter. That’s when the remarkableness of the evening began. A gentleman approached us. He and his wife were sitting up in row B, and he was concerned that their proximity to the speakers would give them some trouble. Would we like to trade seats?
OH HECK YES.
We now found ourselves in the second row, off to the side again but still offered a near-well clear view of the whole stage, close enough to nearly reach out and touch some of the performers. Yes, this would be a good evening.
If I were to launch into a string of superlatives, I might still not do justice to the evening. It was phenomenal in every way. The energy of Loreena and the band members was awesome, and well matched by the enthusiasm in the crowd. You could totally tell that everyone on stage was having tonnes of fun during the performance, and they played and sang with passion. The set they played was a mix of tracks from her long history (during her Book of Secrets tour they played the whole new album first, then the second half was older material; this time it was all interspersed) and it was all magical. Every track had its place, and looking back at it as a whole there was a kind of arc to it, especially towards the end.
The music, well, what more can I say? Revvie put it best: Loreena McKennitt has a voice like honey. Clear, piercing, powerful, and that resonates just right that it carries beautifully right into you. I love her material, I love her lyrics, I especially love the rigour she brings to her work, to her craft, to the way she composes through journey, discovery, learning and letting her muse emerge from that all. To hear her create it live, intimately as it were, was more than a treat. It was an evening filled with many shivers down my spine, as only beautiful music can invoke. (A high shiver-content evening, as it were).
(Another comparison to the Book of Secrets tour — this time they did not try to take the music to fade-out by playing softer and softer. That had struck me as odd last time, so to have the songs end definitively worked better in my book).
Forget Guitar Hero — the next game aught to be Cello and and Volin/Fiddle Hero. MY GOD. The hands and fingers on those players were incredible. The fiddle player (Hugh Marsh — he’s been with Loreena a while, toured with her for Book of Secrets (others may well have been too but he I recognized)) was insane, his fingers hammering furiously as his bow reversed directions equally as fast. During The Bonny Swans he and the electric guitarist first played in opposition, then together furiously in an amazing complimentary composition with speed and crazyness. At the end of a later song with another amazing solo Loreena said in great jest “We’ve been thinking of taking up a collection to give him lessons.” He was something else.
As one audience member shouted out “Your cellist is amazing!” She (Caroline Lavelle) was indeed. To watch her hand on the bridge was mesmerizing, so fast did it move from the top to the bottom to the top to the middle to 2/3rds down back to the top almost instantly, the hand never stopping to vibrate to create the cello sound. And the way she worked the bow, especially during a couple of passages of the Highwayman, was a sight to behold, with subtle and sharp twists and pulls.
We also saw played a Lyra, which for being such small instrument had one heck of a punch to it, a rich sound that reminded me a bit of the erhu in sound in its simplicity and roughess, but with more range and more fullness. What I also loved about all the performers was their versatility, with most playing several instruments, often what I would consider vastly different. And, of course, there was a Hurdy Gurdy (played by Ben Grossman).
Loreena herself played four different instruments during the night (accordion, keyboard, piano and, of course, her signature harp). And let me say that that I think the harp often gets short shrift in music, this is a beautiful instrument. She also spent time talking to us in the audience, sharing her travels, offering insights into how she came to the songs, made some funny remarks, offered up a quote she had recently read, and the like. Distant as a person she is not, even when on stage in front of thousands of people.
She is also generous — one thing that struck me when I first saw her I saw again last night, which was that she never literally stole the spotlight. During the music often the light would dim on her and would shine on one of the musicians (and every musician got this treatment). Very nice. And I’ll repeat here that they were clearly all enjoying themselves, with each often looking at each other, happy to be creating the music and moreso creating the music together.
At this point you may think I’m going off the deep end as I start to say that even the _lighting design_ was perfectly suited, bold just to the right level to be not overwhelming. Yes, this show really was as perfect as I could say.
In the end, after many the songs I loved (including Dante’s Prayer, bliss!) they finished their set. Yet, we were not sated. Not one, but two encores did she play for us, the first being an instrumental version of one of her lyrical songs, the second being one off her new album (Penelope’s Song) that just tied the evening to a close beautifully. When she returned for her second encore to thunderous applause and foot stomping she remarked “You guys are great, do you tour? Do you have a bus?” I shouted out “Take us with you!” to which she replied immediately “I wish I could.” The last song complete, after much more applause and appreciation, the evening was indeed over.
I’d say again this evening was awesome, but I’d be clearly repeating myself (but it was!). I am hesitant to listen to the album music right now, as to not mar the still-fresh memory of the songs played with such passion. This was a great hall to have seen her in (I made a good choice, methinks, of this one over the show in Oakland), with the architecture a bonus for me.
PS — given the release of Nights from the Alhambra, it’s unlikely I’ll end up on yet another live CD…