By: Tiffany Mull
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that I write the same song over and over,” Sarah said, “so with my limited musical ability, I try to spice things up by switching instruments.” This isn’t true, of course, but it does show a level of self-deprecation and humility rare for an artist of her renown.
Sarah is an exceptional vocalist and songwriter, and it’s fair to say that she has a distinct style. The rhythm of her music is not repetitive but organic, like the tide. It rolls, the current of her songs washing hypnotically over listeners. Plus, anyone who launches an insurgent music festival named after an ancient-demon-turned-feminist icon is more than okay in my book.
She opened the evening alone on the piano with “In Your Shoes,” an homage to Malala Yousafzai, whom Sarah described as “the most bad-assed teenager out there.” Next was “Possession,” played soft and slow, almost languid, her fingers walking casual piano runs to the tune festering with the tortured thoughts of a man obsessed. “People always tell me how much they love this song, that they danced to it at their wedding, and I always wonder, ‘Should I tell them it’s about a stalker?’”
For “I Will Remember You,” Vanessa Freebairn-Smith came out to accompany Sarah on the acoustic guitar. Vanessa picked up the cello to compliment Sarah’s piano for “Adia,” a song about a time Sarah crossed a line she shouldn’t have. Throughout the evening, the cello remained slight in the background, minimal and slow, often waiting a verse or two before entering songs. It was spare and discrete, occasionally filling in the edges.
Sarah picked up an acoustic guitar for “Good Enough,” which she dedicated to her female friends. “Guys, bless your hearts, but you tend to come and go. Girls stick around.” Sarah moved her capo before launching into “Building a Mystery,” a song that draws inspiration from the colorful characters who wandered through her life while living on Bourbon Street and showcases her signature voice cracks. Vanessa finger-plucked the cello, played legato during the chorus, and burst abruptly into fast, staccato bow strokes.
McLachlan can make an electric guitar sound gentle. On “Wait,” she manipulated the whammy bar, loosening and tightening the strings for fun pitch modulations. She has a calming, reassuring presence. “World on Fire,” written in the wake of 9/11 but ever relevant, played like an incantation against chaos, violence, and cruelty. Vanessa sliced at her cello, contributing to Sarah’s moving crescendo at the end of the penultimate stanza, that broke dramatically to soft, high piano and vocals for the last verse.
One of the things I love about seeing musicians perform is that you get to see them toy with their work. Songs you’ve listened to the same way countless times on recording are rendered fresh and immediate by the song’s creator in your presence. Sarah’s voice is crisp, resonant, and acrobatic; she cracks it with expert precision. She’s drawn to dark, slow, shadowy songs, and “Sweet Surrender” was written in that vein. For the record, she put a backbeat to it to make it a hit single, but she played it for us the way she’d originally intended—it was gorgeous.
“Hold On” ebbed beautifully out of her fingers onto the piano. The audience sang along to “Ice Cream” before Sarah and Vanessa left the stage to a standing ovation.
The encore was a new song, “Wilderness,” followed by the one I’d been aching to hear: “Angel.” This heartbreaking lullaby of a junkie’s last overdose has been the soundtrack to many a much-needed cry session. The piano and cello accompanied clever, emotive lyrics, her crystalline voice seasoned with melismatic cracks. It earned her a second standing ovation. The night ended with “The Sound That Love Makes” on the ukulele and a third standing ovation when they left the stage.