Sarah McLachlan's Voices in the Park scores a lot of hits and not many misses
At Stanley Park on Saturday, September 15
Nothing's perfect, but this came close.
Just about the only thing missing from Saturday's marathon benefit concert for the Sarah McLachlan School of Music was a big harvest moon rising over Burrard Inlet. Organizers, put that in your wish list for next year!
Oh, and Hedley could have stayed home. But that's just me.
Otherwise, Voices in the Park was a near-total success. And although it was not thronged, the day-long affair was well attended enough that it raised a significant chunk of change for McLachlan's Mount Pleasant facility, which provides free music lessons for inner-city kids. As guest speaker Bill Clinton pointed out in an admirably brief and heartfelt statement, music, art, and poetry are among "the things that open our minds to take in chemistry and physics in a different way."
Political science, too: the former POTUS and amateur saxman claimed he would never have risen to high office without the discipline of grade-school music lessons.
Based on his success at the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Clinton could have monopolized the stage for much longer than he did. But it was McLachlan herself who reigned over the show, making multiple appearances and suffering Saturday's only technical disaster, when her microphone malfunctioned at the start of her 6:35 p.m. mini-set on the intimate Park Stage. If that fazed her, it didn't show: she graciously let band members Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland deliver a tough, gospel-tinged take on Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire", harmonizing over McClelland's shoulder until the problem was solved.
It was McLachlan's show-closing mainstage performance that was the day's emotional highlight, though. Sticking to a short list of fan favourites—including "Adia", "Building a Mystery", "Sweet Surrender", and a two-part encore of "Arms of the Angels" and "Ice Cream"—she nonetheless reinvigorated these familiar tunes with her radiant energy and muscular singing. Whether it was the presence of the NBC cameras—the concert was filmed for a later broadcast—or the sheer relief of having steered the day to a successful conclusion, this was one of the most joyous sets she's ever given in her hometown.
Even if, as she noted, depressing songs are her "happy place".
The day's best music, and its only real surprise, had taken place on the Park Stage a couple of hours earlier, however—and once again it involved Doucet and McClelland. In addition to being core members of McLachlan's band, the married couple have successful solo careers of their own. But it was their new duo project, Whitehorse, that stole the show with a welcome injection of grit and energy.
They've invented a kind of loop-based folk rock, in which they record and then play over their own drum tracks. Working a kick drum, floor tom, shakers, and an assortment of kitchen pots and pans, Doucet drove most of the rhythms, but McClelland held her own in the instrumental department, contributing rock-solid basslines, chiming keys, and aggressively twangy surf guitar to various tunes. As a duo they have an infectious energy: they're in love with each other and with playing music together, and they give off a slightly goofy, slightly manic, and utterly winning sense of fun.
The highlight of the set was undoubtedly McClelland's guitar showcase, which morphed from a Link Wray rumbler into a full-on club banger and then back again, in a remarkably entertaining collision of idioms. Whitehorse. Remember that name.
The rest of the day proceeded pretty much as planned. Hey Ocean! was up when this writer arrived, singing songs of sky and sea and islands and mountains; a perfect fit for a paradisiacal afternoon. Various McLachlan School of Music units made cameo appearances, unveiling a couple of future stars and lots of cohesive ensemble interplay. Jann Arden had the audience eating out of her hand in her inimitable fashion: after being introduced as an emaciated, six-foot-one mountaineer she yelled "It's gonna snow!", then threatened a "a 17-minute version of 'Snowbird'". That didn't happen, but McLachlan did join Arden and guitarist Graham Powell on "I Would Die for You", after which Calgary's favourite daughter quipped "I'd like to bring up Abba.…and now my mother on kazoo!"
Arden often writes about her romantic insecurities; here's hoping she knows that everyone adores her.
Pop fans loved Hedley, too, even if there's nothing even remotely original about their tunes. Frontman Jacob Hoggard put on an energetic performance, but he's never met a cliché he didn't like and he seems, at times, overly in love with his own voice, wailing wordlessly away atop various instrumental passages. Perhaps surprisingly, another McLachlan cameo didn't improve matters.
Queen Sarah didn't sing with Bryan Adams, although Arden reappeared mid-set to grope the still-boyish star's still-boyish bum. And even if you're thoroughly sick of hearing the North Vancouver native's radio staples, there's no denying that he delivered a killer performance: great voice, great acoustic guitar tone, and a great sideman in Toronto's Gary Breit on piano.
Less sometimes is more—a lesson obviously lost on Stevie Nicks, Voices in the Park's penultimate attraction. Her appearance was entertainingly bizarre but not necessarily artistically successful. Backed by a powerful but tasteless L.A. band—was that the great Waddy Wachtel on guitar?—she flat-out stank on on her Led Zeppelin–penned opener, "Rock and Roll", before attacking Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" and "Gold Dust Woman" with a heavy-metal truncheon. Mega-hits thanks to their graceful blend of intensity and economy, they were just loud here.
Nicks's vocal range has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was, her one new song was embarrassingly unfocused, and her stagecraft was less witchy than clumsy. Still, she came so close to a rock ’n' roll train wreck that she was compulsively watchable—and then McLachlan sent us all home happy.