Lost in all the tough guy macho my-patriarch-is-better-than-your-patriarch warring culture and religious undies-in-a-bundle nasty election-year smear and fear politics we find ourselves in these days is the simple fact that God is a woman.
You will find the answer if you let it go
Give yourself some time to falter but don’t
Knowing that you’re loved no matter what
And everything will come around in time
— “The Answer”
My fingers tremble as I sit to write.
I resisted the considerable charms of Sarah McLachlan for years.
Yes, she created the Lilith Fair tours and successfully helmed them for three years. Yes, she’s received three Grammy awards and sold a truckload of CDs. And yes, she is adored by touchy-feely types of many different stripes.
The most luscious of vocalists, she always struck me as too earnest somehow, too precious, too un-artsy-fartsy, too girl-issues-centric, too Enya, too Amy Grant, too—I don’t know—Tori Amos (all attendant judgment and smugness notwithstanding). It’s amazing how far up one’s own Waldorf Astoria one can go and still breathe.
Nashville musician friend Mac Gayden tipped me off way back in the late ’80s. The co-writer of the mega-hit “Everlasting Love,” who was also the first to record slide guitar with wah-wah on J.J. Cale’s song “Crazy Mama,” raved about McLachlan’s voice, material, and band.
But alas, I faltered. It wasn’t until a riveting solo performance on some silly morning TV show that the rocks were removed from the sepulcher of my ears and I finally saw the light.
Out of the loop six years since her previous studio album (Surfacing), her latest release (Afterglow) has sold a respectable two and a half million copies. She’s been filling arenas during a summer that saw tours cancelled by Britney, Christina, and Lollapalooza.
Since touring last, McLachlan has become a mom and survived the loss of her own. Tonight is her farewell U.S. date before heading back to Canada for a few weeks of final shows. In honor of the Vancouver-based, Saskatchewan-born singer/ songwriter, I’m wearing a “Canadian Girls Kick Ass” T-shirt, given me by one who does.
I take a seat in the third tier of the amorphous XcelCenter in St. Paul, Minnesota (“dontcha know?”). Big velvety drapes of orange and yellow hang down. A grand piano sits on stage. The show opens with swirling lights, curtains lifting. A 7-piece band emerges: two guitarists, two keyboardists, bass, drums, and female vocalist. The band kicks in. The sound is unbelievable. McLachlan walks directly up to the mic and launches into “Fallen.”
My mind stops. It cannot comprehend the spectacularly rich sound of the notes emanating from this woman’s vocal chords. Her wardrobe is the simplest of fare: blue jeans, low-heeled boots, a slightly open, tied in the rear, low-sleeve maroon shirt, hair pulled back and parted in the middle, dangling silver earrings.
She looks almost like your average soccer mom with slightly hunched shoulders, eyes a smidge puffy and too much dark eye makeup. It’s a face that shows some wear, but there is something transcendent in her beauty as well. I have never seen a major performer so comfortable in her skin, so genuine, unaffected, centered in the music. She comes across remarkably present, accessible, real, classy, without a bone of pretense.
Not so much graceful physically, almost a bit lunky at times, stumbling around stage a la Jim Morrison with a kind of ‘who-cares?’ masculine energy, but fully feminine at the same time, sensual in her no-nonsense power, a down-to-earth-goddess-next-door type, and a consummate, exacting musician on guitar or piano, as clear a belle who’s ever rung my chimes.
And that voice!
It’s as if angels are gold-leafing each note. When she sings she makes squishy little faces, often flipping effortlessly to transcendent falsettos—one of my favorite vocal moves—with a pitch as pure as pre-asp Eden. She sings high notes with fullness, low notes, too, all on a bed of air that falls somewhere between baby’s breath and the breath of God. Her voice easily fills the whole arena and threatens to lift it off its moorings.
For the first five songs, my chest is heaving, tears welling up in my eyes. I can barely catch my breath. She straps on an acoustic guitar. “…hearts break, hearts ache….” Her guitar-playing is as exquisite as her vocals, her speaking voice as rich as her singing voice.
She breaks into, “We are all born innocent; we are all still innocent,” and a shower of healing pours from the stage. It’s palpable. My young friend who accompanies me to the show compares it to her experiences with Ammachi, the hugging saint. It is a high thing, spiritually uplifting.
McLachlan’s dancing hands punctuate words with subtle and expressive motions. As with many of her songs, lyrics that challenge the insanity of the world without condemming it or even directly alluding to it are carried by an elevated melody that offers hope and delivers joy as well.
A wispy-girl soprano version of “You are my Sunshine” morphs into “hold on to yourself, this is going to hurt like hell…the deeper you cut to the bone….”
Like Jesus with five loaves of bread, McLachlan miraculously feeds every soul in the arena. Even though I’m midway to the nosebleed section, there is an incredible bond of intimacy. The sound is the best I’ve ever heard in a place this size. In a moment of rapture, I jot down on my notepad: EVERYONE MUST OWN RECORDS OF THIS MORTAL.
She only smiles freely a handful of times but when she does the heavens open. She sings a song dedicated to her husband, tour drummer Ashwin Sood. “The one true thing I can believe.”
Talks about motherhood: “Between the hormones and the sleep deprivation, every time [daughter India] went for the breast, it seemed like a part of my brain seeped out. They say it comes back in a year but I’m still waiting.”
She does a song about being terrified to commit to love, adding sometimes you just have to jump in with both feet. “I will remember you. Will you remember me?” Someone shouts out, “We love you, Sarah!” She pauses and says quietly, “I’m quite fond of you, too.” She introduces a “cheery” song, accompanied by squeezebox, adding, “I don’t know why it is but the more depressing the song the happier I am singing it.”
She writes more waltzes than any other pop star, I’d wager: “Will we burn in heaven like we do down here?” Her vocals transport like fellow Canadian Neil Young’s soaring lead guitar playing. Let’s face it, Canadians rock. She confides that it usually takes her a year to finish each song, but introduces two songs as gifts that came out whole.
One is her favorite off the new CD called Answer. “When the stars have all gone out, you’ll still be burning bright . . . take me to a place so holy that I can’t wash this from my mind….” There’s a hint of Elton John but without one campy iota of schmaltz.
Then the song that’s been stuck in my head since the concert, another waltz: “In the arms of an angel, may you find some comfort here.”
Lord knows, we could all use a little Northern comfort.