Sarah McLachlan--Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

The evening of March 25 found me seated second row, center mezzanine, for Sarah McLachlan's sold-out concert at New York's Town Hall. Following an engaging, if not inspiring, set by openers, The Devlins, MacLachlan and her six-piece band took the stage.

MacLachlan's stage demeanor first strikes one as shy, deferential, perhaps even a little nervous, but it isn't long before it's quite clear that she is in full command of the stage and all those upon it.

I seldom read coverage of McLachlan without encountering some mention of, or comparison to, Joni Mitchell but, frankly, I don't make that connection. Yes, McLachlan's lyrics have the same confessional quality to them as Mitchell's. Her voice, though, is much more reminiscent, to my ears, of Sinead O'Connor while her music has always suggested to me a distaff Jimmie Spheeris for the 90's (and, hard as it may be to believe, I mean that as a compliment).

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, McLachlan's new album, aims a bit for the mainstream. It strikes me as being little more radio-ready, a little more pop-ish, than her rather ethereal previous release, Solace. But while these tunes may be a bit more pedestrian, McLachlan's remarkable voice enables her to rise above even the most mediocre among them.

In concert, McLachlan eschews the easy road. Not content to merely parrot the recorded versions of these songs, McLachlan and her polished (which is not to say slick) band subtly rework many of the more familiar songs from her canon.

McLachlan brought the Town Hall crowd to their feet, and kicked the show into high gear, when she strapped on an electric guitar and power-chorded the intro to a hyped-up rendition of Hold On. Possession, the opening cut from Fumbling... was here a raucous aural wall, with the drums and electric guitar brought way up in the mix compared to the comparatively understated album version. The funky intro to one number had me convinced I was about to hear a cover of George Benson's version of On Broadway but, no, it was just a funkay reworking of Into the Fire.

It's a cliche', but in this case an apt one, to say that for the rest of the night she had the audience eating out of her hand. After two encores, they were still screaming for more and all went home quite happy. I suggest you pick up Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and urge you not to miss Sarah McLachlan when she plays your town.

Bonnie Raitt--Longing in Their Hearts

No one is cooler than Bonnie Raitt, as a woman and an artist. From her sublimely smoky voice to her sneaky, snaky slide guitar work, she is aces in my book, tops. I like the lines around her wise and compassionate eyes, the grey in her truck-stop-waitress hair. The fact that she doesn't try to hide her years makes her more attractive, not less so. I like her rowdy past and her current sobriety.

And I like her new Capitol release, Longing in Their Hearts. I just wish I liked it a little more. Don't get me wrong, her husky, evocative vocals are as strong as ever, her playing crisp and sinuous but there is a certain sense that we've heard it before. It may well be that Longing in Their Hearts is every bit as strong an album as Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw, her previous two blockbuster releases. But as this is, in a sense, the third part of a trilogy, it can't help but feel a little familiar. I wonder, if we could teleport this album back to 1986 via time machine, if it wouldn't bring the same sales, the same Grammys, the same acclaim that Nick of Time received. It wouldn't surprise me a bit.

The album certainly fits the pattern the other two set. Produced by Don Was and featuring an impressive roster of studio guests (Levon Helm, Paulinho Da Costa, David Crosby, Benmont Tench, Richard Thompson, Charlie Musselwhite), it picks up right where they left off and I suspect that's the problem. Still, it is quality work; if you liked Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw, you'll not regret buying Longing in Their Hearts. I certainly don't. It may even make my Best of '94 list at year's end. But, as yet, it hasn't set my heart to pounding either.

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