Being Sarah McLachlan probably isn’t too rough. Let’s see. She’s a well-deserved indie goddess (even though she hasn’t really been considered ‘alternative’ for more than 15 years). She’s universally acclaimed among her peers. Every woman in the world aged 25-55 loves her. Any man in the world would not dare diss her (bad-mouthing Sarah McLachlan is like bad-mouthing Santa Claus or your mom – there just isn’t any value in doing either). She’s a celebrated contributor to countless global charities and causes. She released the finest female solo album of the 1990’s (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy). She created Lilith Fair. She’s become everything that we hoped Whitney Houston would have become with age (graceful elegance). So thus on Sunday, it is during that one brief, 15-second story from Sarah about seeing her young daughter wave to her from the side of the stage during the previous song that brings a collective “awwww, that’s so sweet” murmur throughout the crowd. In the palm of her hand we all are. Yes indeed, it’s good to be Sarah.
Sarah McLachlan was the Florence Welch (of Florence + the Machine) before Florence + the Machine were Florence + the Machine. Sarah and Natalie Merchant had the two most distinctive and appealing voices in indie and pop culture during the 90’s. But where Merchant became more distant, McLachlan got personal and the fans (especially female) sang along (and came along) in droves. Her voice remains smooth, and actually – it’s just about perfect. Her songwriting, while mostly unchanging, still delivers the types of songs that keep the fans glued to her. The songs are timeless enough to be passed down to the generation of offspring from Sarah’s female fanbase of the early 90’s. Her live performances, including this hot and humid outdoor effort in Chicago are low-risk but flawless – and they present a glimpse of what I wish Sarah would do (more on that later).
Only 30 feet away? Nah. Pass the cheese tray, please.
Opening ironically with ‘Building a Mystery’, it’s the track that has become her most popular staple. Nevertheless, apart from singing background on a couple tracks led by married bandmates Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet, the live show provides less mystery, and more favorite hits. In a setting (the Ravinia Pavilion) that is strikingly odd (15,000 in attendance but 80% of the crowd in the ‘lawn’ area with no sightlines to the stage) Sarah is quite honestly the world’s perfect musical entertainment to the this large wine and cheese event. To be more accurate, there was a 15,000 person wine and cheese festival Sunday night and a Sarah McLachlan performance happened to break out. My head-scratching became more invigorated as I witnessed family after family sitting 30 feet from the Pavilion with no sightlines. At least 23 times I wanted to yell out to these people “you do realize this is Sarah McLachlan over here and you do know you could walk 30 feet to see her, right?”. Seriously.
Sarah being Sarah is still great Sarah
So, about that concert that broke out, Ms. McLachlan sounded typically tremendous. Just as she played the soundtrack to many of the lives of those in attendance, she played the soundtrack to their night. Her sincere stories of enjoying her full day off in Chicago and her natural magnetism to the largely 40-45 year old women in the crowd brought dozens of “oh, she sounds so great” comments. And yes, she did. No costume changes thankfully – this isn’t a Gaga show. Just Sarah with her acoustic guitar, her piano and a polite crowd in the Pavilion. Where it lacks in innovation it makes up for in elegance and execution. She’s one of the few live acts right now that won’t get panned for simply playing the favorites for the crowd. What’s most remarkable quite frankly is that we’re 20+ years into her career and no female singer has stepped up to replace her. No one is carrying the torch. Maybe Adele will? Perhaps Florence Welch? But we used to think that of Norah Jones as others have quietly come and gone. I’m sensing that when Sarah walks into the hall of fame, her successors will still be battling it out.
P.S. “I want to be in a band!”
I often wish Sarah would say that. Here’s the part of the review where I should close down my laptop. I’ve been a full catalog owner of Sarah’s releases since the early 90’s and I’m not female. That’s what an album like Fumbling Towards Ecstasy can do – it’s a phenomenal album. If Sarah wanted to waste 10 minutes of her life and ask me what I think she should do next – it would be form a band, or better yet become part of one. Not a touring band like she has now, but a recording band. I’m not saying she should try and join the Foo Fighters, but she could still write, record and perform the flawless compositions like she does now – but with an edge, and with more input from other members. Sarah sings wonderful harmonies and joining forces with other lead vocalists could invigorate her career even further and still appeal to every female on the planet. A sample of this scenario has been in her live show the past couple years with the aforementioned McClelland and Doucet – and quite frankly, those moments are some of the highlights of her show. She could do more of that on record. For the time being, I have enough solo Sarah McLachlan records. A great catalog yes, but topping that work won’t likely happen and a slight change in her recording direction would be more exciting than the announcement of a new solo or live album. She can give us both and do both well – Sunday night proved that again.