Canadian queen of Celtic melodies returns to San Francisco for an austere and intimate performance
“Surreal” is probably the most appropriate word to describe how the evening felt this past Saturday night, when Loreena McKennitt returned to the Bay Area for the first time in nearly 10 years and treated a sold-out crowd at The Masonic to a gorgeous performance that stretched on for nearly three hours. There were no opening acts to speak of; there was only one encore (albeit with two songs), one intermission, and three musicians onstage for most of the concert. At the center of it all was a fantastic performer who, now in her 31st year of performing, sounds just as powerful and mystifying as she did on her albums from decades gone by, both in voice and in instrumentation. It was quite the sight to behold, made more intense by the unwavering concentration and respect of the audience; aside from when the musicians bowed at the end of the show, not a single conversation was to be heard, nor a phone held aloft to document the moment — an extreme rarity in today’s live music scene.
Perhaps just as startling as the crowd’s silent attentiveness was how talkative McKennitt was between songs, and she filled quite a bit of the evening up with all manner of thoughts about the world and stories from both her time and ancient history. Her discourse covered numerous topics, such as the history of the Celts and their influence on Europe and society as a whole, stories of whimsical traveling companions and roadside amusements in Ireland during tours, and her concern over the growing separation between the current technology-driven world and the intimacy of music being taught by, and played in, families together. Lest she became concerned with possibly alienating her Silicon Valley audience, however, none of her words fell on deaf ears, nor were they booed or otherwise contested; appreciative applause was offered time and again during her talks, and her tone — one of passion and longing, desiring to see the unifying power that music clearly still had on people — was taken well by her onlookers.
This is not, of course, to say that the majority of the evening was taken up with conversation; indeed, McKennitt and her instrumental companions had two entire sets of music to share with the Masonic, and did so with gusto and aplomb. The majority of pieces were culled from McKennitt’s breakout album The Visit, now reaching its 15th year of age, while a score of others came from her latest release, 2010’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley. A few of these latter pieces were combined into a 15-minute medley at the end of the first set, fused together with bits of journal entries and poetry that McKennitt read aloud between musical passages. Flanked by guitarist Brian Hughes trading duties from electric to acoustic effortlessly on her right, and cellist Caroline Lavelle deftly swinging from bass to treble parts on the opposite end of the stage, McKennitt lent her stunning voice to the mix, while nimbly crafting the main elements of her songs on piano and harp. The result was over two solid hours of melody that was as intense in its sound as it was minimal in its players’ presentation, and little changed onstage beneath the faint, flickering candles that served as the only bit of scenery to frame the band as they played.
While the crowd stayed mostly silent and still during the evening, it was hard to quell their excitement over McKennitt’s most loved pieces. The first few notes of “Bonny Swans” and “The Lady Of Shalott” were met with loud applause and some excited cheering, and when the trio returned for their encore, joined by violinist Errol Fischer, they had barely gotten mere seconds into “The Mummer’s Dance” before the auditorium erupted in shouts of joy. Equally exciting were the moments where Hughes and Lavelle traded off their duties as lead instrumentalist; their resulting “music duels” led to spectacular finishes, and the audience exploded with enthusiasm in response. The rest of the time, the crowd was remarkably quiet and attentive, though it was easy to see wide grins spread across the dimly-lit faces of those seated and witnessing the music onstage. This was a truly special night for everyone who made it out, and a feeling of great camaraderie was easily recognizable throughout the show.
I first heard Loreena McKennitt’s music 15 years ago, and missed any other opportunity (though there were not many) to see her up until this point. I was floored by the reverence and austerity that the evening offered; rarely have I seen such a show that happens without interruption or delay, and is admired and respected by all who behold it. This was also one of the few shows I’ve attended that, despite the long-running tenure of the main player, was not a reunion, comeback, or attempt at pulling the spotlight back — she never lost her stride, and it absolutely shows. McKennitt may take years between her appearances, but, to my mind, this rarity helps to preserve how unique and special of a performance each one is. I definitely would love to experience seeing her in a live setting with a larger collection of musicians, but just for a change of pace; despite my reservations, I found the trio’s arrangements to be extremely impressive.
Whenever Loreena McKennitt returns to town, don’t miss out on seeing her — it will definitely be an experience unlike nearly any other.
- Samain Night
- All Souls Night
- Annachie Gordon
- Between The Shadows
- Bonny Portmore
- The Wind That Shakes The Barley
- Down By The Sally Gardens
- The Emigration Tunes
- Lark In The Clear Air
- On A Bright May Morning
- The Stolen Child
- Penelope’s Song
- Bonny Swans
- The Lady Of Shalott
- The Old Ways
- Dante’s Prayer
- The Mummer’s Dance
- Full Circle
All photos © 2016 Jonathan Pirro.