REVIEW: This princess of pain needed her female bandmates to add humor and grit to her formalism.
Sarah McLachlan was the unwitting poster child for what was wrong with the concert business in 2010: ill-conceived concepts and overpriced tickets led to the financial disaster of her all-female Lilith Fair redux.
McLachlan, a saint of women's music and unimpeachable social do-gooder, got her groove back this year by touring theaters with reasonable tickets prices ($40-$75) and the kind of intimacy befitting her ornate melancholic pop. Nonetheless, she has turned the Sarah McLachlan & Friends Tour into a mini-Lilith. Two of the women in her band are Lilith alums, and they got to sing their own numbers Wednesday at the soldout Orpheum Theatre -- not as opening acts but during McLachlan's set.
Although one boisterous fan was put off by this approach (and put in his place by a firm but friendly retort from McLachlan), it proved to be a canny move. Butterfly Boucher and especially Melissa McClelland provided much-needed and winning contrasts to McLachlan.
Everything about McClelland, a 31-year-old Canadian, was right -- from her songs and voice to her personality and patter to her humor and cherry-red shoes. Her duet with her husband, McLachlan's longtime guitarist Luke Doucet, on "Broken One," sounded like the best commercial country song I've heard in quite some time. Bassist Boucher, a 31-year-old Aussie, was less consistently impressive, but her edgy pop added much-desired grit to the 2 1/2-hour, two-set program.
McLachlan, 43, one of pop's most passionate princesses of pain, showed her vulnerability and resilience at the Orpheum. Her divorce from her drummer/husband was the main topic of last year's comeback album, "Laws of Illusion," and a focus on Wednesday. Although she admits to being happy and liberated now, her unflinching earnestness muted the emotionalism of her formalist pop, which doesn't mesh with today's in-your-face dance pop. She's never willing to let her hair down, cut loose and reach a transformative moment. There seemed to be too much woe-is-me ennui and not enough catharsis.
When McLachlan went the quieter, more organic route on the acoustic "Good Enough," there was power in her simplicity. She was looser in the second set, when strong opening performances by McClelland and Boucher combined with McLachlan's personal and light-hearted Q&A with the audience (via written questions submitted to her merchandise stand) seemed to open her up.
The gorgeously gospel "Angel," featuring just three female voices and McLachlan's piano, took on new meaning, especially after she explained in the Q&A what sparked it (the overdose death of the keyboardist in Smashing Pumpkins). And on "Possession," a rocker that sounds like her attempt to write a Heart song, McLachlan finally cut loose and wailed at the very end, showing the passion and power to go with all her Lilith-evoking purposefulness.
For a set list, go to www.startribune.com/artcetera Jon Bream • 612-673-1719