REVIEW: Sarah McLachlan -- Sunflower Sunday

(July 24, 1994, 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., Vanier Park, Vancouver, with Ashley MacIsaac and Lost & ProFound opening.)

When I got inside I was slightly disappointed that there were few sight lines of the ocean view, but I moved to the back side nearest the water both where the sound would be good and where the view of the stage was framed by a bit of water, plus the semi-view of water and boats through the sheer black stage backdrop. Unlike the Vancouver folk festival at Jericho Park, the venue did not take full advantage of the natural surroundings, and the time could have been moved so that the concert ended at sunset.

At the start I was in a bit of a sour mood from having to line up well past advertised gate time (due to travel and sound check delays). The first opening act, Lost and Profound, did nothing to dispel this. But perhaps it was the time of day; hot siesta time, and I would enjoy them more in an intimate late club setting, or if I had been in a happier mood to begin with. During their set I sat/lay on the grass and mostly read, but popped my head and binoculars up for some numbers.

Then during the first intermission, instead of blessed silence the radio station sponsor pumped out some soft unrooted electronic dance musak pap that set my teeth on edge and made me want to leave for a stroll on the beach for some real mixed rhythm.

OK, after that it is mostly uphill. Ashley MacIsaac's band took the stage, and did a high energy set of Cape Breton jigs and reels, some cajun stuff, even a celtified version of "Staying Alive". I was amazed that he was fully dressed in long shirt and long pants, when in that weather a kilt would have sufficed. The sound was not quite right (almost), they didn't get the base sound before extending it. MacIsaac extends the ancient sound of the fiddle into electric realms, and bridges cultures and generations. He has the fire, but still needs to be tempered by a little more experience (he was 19 at the time). I semi-danced (too hot) behind the sound stage with hordes of others, and was standing for the entire set. But it was still too early for celtic dancing. An outdoor concert is great, but I would prefer a sunset one or an illegal after-hours 3 a.m. one to a midday one, or a midday one in shady groves. MacIsaac came back for one encore set.

After a short break, and some sound adjustments, the Sarah McLachlan band strolled out on stage, and the announcer said that SMc would be out shortly. The band set up a crowd-calming rhythm and after a minute or so she strolled on stage to tumultuous applause.

I hadn't heard Sarah live since the Clayoquot benefit, and she seemed thinner, a little tired, not as glowing. But perhaps it was just the sun beating on her face, and the tour stress, jet lag and early sound check/concert time --- she said they had gone through three time zones today. She was still an elfin beauty in voice, form and movement, but it took a little while to build the energy.

Early in the set they did mostly mellow tunes, to calm the crowd and get them focussed. Unlike the first act, I didn't find them depressing, since even in the blackest of Sarah's songs you get a sense of hope, of possible light, and of resonance. You could feel the crowd settling in, and the energy beginning to flow back and forth from band to crowd to band, more from crowd to band when we sensed that initial tiredness.

Then the band began to build the energy, sending out pulsing rhythms, with the dancing seabird voice, occasionally punctuated by real seabirds not far from where I was standing. I found the band to be even more proficient and tighter than the one I heard at the PNE in 1991; and they no longer overwhelm the singer at times but now properly counterpoint and contrast with her. And of course Sarah picked up a guitar for many songs, and impressed all.

Picture circling waves of sound, leaving the band, moving in small and large loops through the crowd. The crowd, rooted to the grass by tailbone or sole, groove as one, breathe as one, and nod their heads back and forth, sending that energy back to the band.

I wasn't fully happy with the sound but it wasn't too bad without any repeaters and with the speakers a touch narrowly separated. But her voice did not quite the same responant warmth that it had at the Clayoquot benefit, and I blame that on sound contraints. Outdoors you really need to boost the very very lowest harmonics since otherwise they are carried away...

Her voice has a little more subtlety than years ago, there are more little touches that really convey emotion. Like other of my favourite singers, she projects the song, is one with the song, and makes the song well up within you. You are within the web of song, linking singer and audience, sea and sun, tree and thee... Nothing is held back, at the end of of a painful piece you feel the need to reach out and comfort, to clear, in the difficult pieces you sing along with breath and soul. When I was starting to wander away, in attention and body, towards the concession, the moving sounds of Mary turned me around, brought my attention to stage and sea horizon, rooted my feet once more to the grass.

Her (and many others') words and music have helped fuel my growth over the last few years, and hence the songs which speak to that, and to resonance with the natural world, and to making positive changes in society, moved me greatly. From the fenced in grassy knoll I could feel the music, at the boundary between city and ocean, with the rhythm of sea, earth, air and sun as a powerful backbeat. Drawn to the Rhythm helped remind me of that, and my walk near the watchTower near high tide on Sept. 5, 1991.

I liked the live version of Home better than that on the recording. Her voice rang out, like an invocation, like a bell of power, to ring out around the world. Feel the voice, feel it fade, let your breath follow it, around the sphere of earthhome and back, by paths diverse but one.

The arrangement of Into the Fire is also different but maybe slightly more upbeat, less stilted (lightened?) than that on Solace. But it retains its call-and-response feel, that it would be a good singalong, a good mantra. Feel the sparks, the links from earth to sun, the small suns echoed within you, the opening of the way through the stare, wings of space enfolding you and all. (More recently, 1997, I also interpret the fire to mean both the sexual fire between two lovers and also the fire which results from Kali dancing upon Siva in the cremation ground ashes, in Hinduism. For me this represents new creativity after the low of the sunspot cycle. There are other interpretations.)

They did Ice Cream as one of the encores, and I sort of rooted my feet way down to the earth's core, and felt the waves of love around the crowd. Speaking of mixhearing stuff, I sometimes hear a bit of "I scream" as well as "icecream". But really, just like it is easier to sing "Building" as "Bill ding" than "build ing", it is easier to sing ice cream as "I's cream" than "ice cream".

Vox as usual got its big crowd response but far fewer people danced than for Ashley MacIsaac. But that was because Ashley's stuff is pure new-old-time dance music, whereas with Sarah's stuff people were content to listen, in the early heat.

In Possession I hoped (called for) some wind to come in from the sea, stir the crowd, but none obliged. Instead, the powerful voice and keyboards stirred through the crowd, held them rooted to the earth. Again, the live version seemed more natural than the CD version.

For Good Enough, she dedicated it to friendship or love between two women, or to a mother, but didn't name any names. It can also be interpreted as the bonding between someone and Mother Earth.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy was one of the encores. I will have to disagree with those who don't think it should be released as a single, it is one of my favourite songs on the album. (But perhaps a different target station market.) It is an uplifting mantra, that you can use to regulate your breath, to sing along with, to break the barriers that hold you. Don't fear to reach out, to feel emotion, to make change in yourself and in the world. Build up the energy in yourself, then reach out, and resonate. In this song, McLachlan reached deep and poured out pure emotion, a blessing on the crowd, with a moving finale. Then (this was the second encore) she dodged off stage, maybe once again mortal, tired, hot and in need of a good night's sleep, but probably pumped up a bit by the crowd, a welcome homecoming.

In summary, I enjoyed it but since I was tired and irritable did not rank it with my best concerts of hers. However, where the opening acts failed to buoy me out of the sour mood, she and her band did! Sarah McLachlan has grown into a powerful front person and arranger and is just getting into her prime years (may they be long) so I bet there will be many more moving concerts in future, especially if she doesn't burn out from touring. (Hey, how's that for circular logic --- how can there be concerts without touring? I guess with individual virtual reality concerts or 3-D glasses pay-per-view in clubs with very good sound systems, but that's not quite the same. That would allow more around the world to groove along, and may be the wave of the future, but there is no substitute for real live shows.)

After the concert I did not hang around with the autograph seekers, but dodged out the gate and down to the beach, to savour the cool waves of water and air, wishing some to pass up to the band.

I recommend anyone with the chance to hear Sarah live do so.