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Troubadours of Wonder

March 20, 2016

If I may digress momentarily from the topic of my recent symposium, I will recount the lovely evening I had last night, with last night being an evening spent seeing Loreena McKennitt perform up in San Francisco. Such wonders it was!

The performance was of a different format than her previous tours, being primarily a trio of herself, her guitarist, and her cellist. She likened it to the troubadour tradition, and it made for a very intimate evening, as did her stories. One of the things I’ve always loved about her concerts is the interludes between songs when she will speak about the music, or her journey, or some issue that contextualizes it all. Last night, she spun stories not only of the specific research or travels, but more personal stories of her, rather hilarious, experiences while travelling, especially when she was just beginning her musical (I hate to call it such) career. She also shared the idea behind this trio tour, and it struck me that, after years of travelling with such large entourages (including her magical concert at the Alhambra), to be able to pack everything up in one van and travel with just that one van must have seemed like a great escape.

Her selections of songs also harkened back to her earlier albums, with many songs from Elemental and The Visit making their appearance. Just before the intermission, they pulled out one very new piece (at least new to me) that was something else: a music and spoken word number that chronicled the arrival of Irish immigrants to Canada during the great famine of the 1840s. Titled Grosse Isle, it used Loreena’s journal entries as well as accounts from officers stationed at the island as the spoken word portions. Lasting some 15 minutes, it was both beautiful and poignant.

The amount of energy and fun between her and her performers has always been great (as is her willingness and insistence of sharing the stage and spotlight). The music was, as expected, exceptional. My friend Reveille’s description of Lorrena’s voice still rings very true: she has a voice like honey. Clear, penetrating, and powerful, yet without a hint of forcefulness. I got the notion last night that she sings the way one’s power should be in Tai Chi: steel wrapped in cotton, that is to say, it is full of softness and subtleness and grace and beauty, without being limp, unstructured, or flimsy. She sang effortlessly, filling the hall and sending waves upon waves of shivers down my spine. Great music does that to me, and this was most certainly great music.

As I conversed with our fellow audience members, one of them noted (this was his first concert with Loreena) that he was blown away with, as he put it, the authenticity of both her and her singing. I hadn’t put it that way before, but that is something that has always struck me about her music and even more so when I’ve seen her live: She does very few tours and puts out relatively few albums. Everything she releases comes from research and layers of understanding and personal connection.  She has rigour to her work. Her intention for the music is all about the music and what it embodies, nothing else. Not fame, not glory, not a high life. And it comes through. It makes the music so ‘pure’ and rich. When she sings, there are layers upon layers she can, and does, draw from, for each song, and she’s able to put that into the music.

It was an amazing evening and I am overjoyed to have been able to experience it.

The rest of the day was also wonderful.  My friend Yuebo and I spent the day exploring San Francisco, finding little hidden stairways that led through verdant lanes up the hillside, leading to secluded gardens and overlooks and benches and passageways for the residents, and the architecturally fun notion of these houses perched atop each other as they hugged their way up the cliffsides, and just generally enjoying all the little visual, auditory, and community vignettes we discovered no matter where we walked, hills or in the flats. We also walked the labyrinth in front of Grace Cathedral, and dinner was at a nice French place in what I like to call the “secret alleyway of wicked restaurants”.

Welcome, everyone, to the first day of spring.

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