[25 October 2006]
“Well, how about just one more jilted love song before I move on? Sorta seems that the more depressing or the more sad the song, the more joy I get out of singing it. Probably ‘cause I’ve been in most of these situations at some point or other in my life and…it’s been kinda crappy…and…it is amazing retribution to be standing up on stage here feeling so damn good. Knowing that I’ve been there and I’m here now and I feel way, way better [laugh].”
—Sarah McLachlan, Mirrorball: The Complete Concert, spoken at the beginning of Disc Two.
On April 21, 1998, Sarah McLachlan performed the final show of the Mirrorball tour at the Rose Garden Arena (Theater of the Clouds) in Portland, Oregon. By that time, McLachlan had already achieved commercial success, beginning with her debut album Touch in 1988. Touch was followed by Solace (1992), which was itself followed by 1994’s critical darling, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. In 1997, McLachlan outdid herself with Surfacing, a multi-platinum smash that featured the songs “Building a Mystery”, “Adia”, “Last Dance”, “Sweet Surrender”, and “Angel”. You’ll recall that the last tune also appeared on the City of Angels soundtrack.
Fueled by this body of work, Sarah McLachlan had more than enough gusto to bring to the stage. She channeled her passion for performing into Lillith Fair, a tour featuring an impressive and inspiring line-up of female artists. At the same time, the first incarnation of Mirrorball, a CD of live music from the Mirrorball tour, was working its way up the charts.
Don’t be confused by the two Mirrorballs. The Mirrorball recording of 1999 (let’s call it Mirrorball Version 1.0) is not the same collection as Mirrorball: The Complete Concert (let’s call it Mirrorball Version 2.0). The 1999 version consisted of 14 songs, personally selected by McLachlan, and it clocked in at a healthy 66 minutes. Those 14 songs weren’t the fruits of a single performance; they were picked from various nights along the tour. The selections mainly represented McLachlan’s studio work on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (six songs) and Surfacing (six songs), along with one song from Solace, “Path of Thorns (Terms)”, and another song from The Brothers McMullen soundtrack, “I Will Remember You”.
Mirrorball: Version 2.0, is the upgrade, consisting of the 23 songs taken exclusively from the tour’s final stop in Oregon. A two-hour DVD of the concert was released in 1999; now comes the audio, personally remastered by McLachlan. Although Version 1.0 was no slouch in the quality department, Mirrorball 2.0‘s 23 songs are fantastic and delightful ear candy. Statistically, McLachlan’s work from Fumbling and Surfacing still dominate the line-up, as McLachlan and her band perform 11 of Fumbling‘s 12 songs and 7 of Surfacing‘s ten. Additionally, “I Remember You” shows up again, along with three tunes from Solace and one from Touch.
On Record vs. In Person
Winning awards and collecting platinum plaques doesn’t guarantee credibility with hardcore music fans. One way to win us over is by rocking our world in concert. For many of us, the live show is the ultimate means of experiencing a performer’s artistry. It separates the winners from the also-rans, the top of the field from the run of the mill, the truly great from the mediocre. Some artists enhance and enrich their studio output by performing in grand fashion, taking the opportunity to riff and play in a looser atmosphere or to explain the history or inspiration for a song. Ani Difranco, for instance, has successfully transferred the quirkiness of her style and personality into a live recording wellspring, first with 1997’s acclaimed Living in Clip, then 2002’s So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, and currently with her series of “Official Bootleg” releases. Some artists are, simply put, just plain better in person than compressed into those little doughnuts we call compact discs. Ben Harper does his thing in the studio, but he’s vastly better in the flesh.
The stakes are different for the “live recording”. The phrase even sounds like an oxymoron. Presumably, we’re getting the best of both sources—the energy and spontaneity of the live show coupled with the perks that accompany CD and digital technology. We benefit from the CD’s convenience (you don’t have to buy a ticket) and control (you can press “rewind” and “repeat”). But the problems are inherent and somewhat tricky to overcome. Primarily, there’s the elusiveness of its source material, the actual concert, which, memorable though it may be, is ultimately fleeting and ethereal.
If only we could somehow bottle major events for future generations. I’m sure somebody’s working on a way for us to download our memories into our cellphones (it could be called the “M-Cast” and it would play memories, dreams, ringtones, and video clips in some revolutionary memory-encoding format). In the meantime, one function of a successful live recording is to create the illusion that the listener of the CD is attending the live show. That’s the illusion. The trick is not to be too good at it. I don’t want to hear the guy in the crowd who’s talking on his cellphone, “Hello? What? …Can you hear me now?…Nothing much. Just hangin’ out at the Sarah McLachlan concert…” Making a live recording work is a bit like a novelist’s attempt to imitate live conversation through written dialogue. It should sound like real dialogue, but it’s generally wise to omit the stuttering, repeated words, jumbled thoughts, and assorted coughs and “ums” that don’t further the story.
But that’s not all. Live recordings may encounter problems with sound quality. Then there’s the singer’s voice, which has endured the rigors of touring and the vocal wear-and-tear of multiple performances. You might say, “Hey, that’s what they get paid to do,” and that’s true, but it does impact the final result. There’s also the listener’s involuntary reliance on the sense of hearing (and memories, if you attended the performance) to appreciate an event that is naturally experienced with the benefit of sight. Some of the best things about live music—bantering with the crowd, making facial expressions, and dancing—don’t play well on CD. And then there’s the biggest live show error of all, at least in my book: letting the crowd sing a chorus or even a verse. In concert, I can deal with it. But in my car? No, I don’t want to hear the multitude singing in unison like that old Coca-Cola commercial (“I’d like to teach the world to sing / in perfect harmony….”); I want to hear the singer and only the singer.
The Mirrorball 2.0 Performance
When you listen to a Sarah McLachlan live recording, you’re in for a treat. While I’ve always enjoyed her studio albums—Fumbling Towards Ecstasy remains my unshakable favorite, especially the songs “Good Enough”, “Hold On”, and “Ice Cream”—the overall delivery of these projects has yielded a guarded, reserved sound. McLachlan’s insightful lyrics, dynamic range, and intimate range are present in the studio releases, but the full effect is slightly cooled and constricted, albeit in a charming way. Occasionally, her voice sounds dulled by layering and flattened by CD compression.
I know some of this is due to my belief that I can hear sonic differences between vinyl, cassettes, and CDs, and that any configuration of music is going to sound different from a live performance. But a respectable part has to do with how wonderful McLachlan sounds in concert. In front of an audience, her voice is unstoppable; it’s full and vibrant, breathing energy into her poetic content. Translated into a live recording, the result is spacious and atmospheric, as if you’ve been invited into the artist’s living room and offered a cup of tea. By the end, you feel you’ve been listening to stories from an old friend. If you’re familiar with Sarah McLachlan, you know how conceptually heavy she can get:
“What ravages of spirit conjured this temptuous rage
Created you a monster, broken by the rules of love”
—“Do What You Have to Do”
“Morning smiles like the face of a newborn child, innocent, unknowing”
“Listen as the wind blows from across the great divide
Voices trapped in yearning, memories trapped in time
The night is my companion and solitude my guide
“Will we burn in heaven like we do down here”
The album booklet for Mirrorball 2.0 shares McLachlan’s song lyrics. You can’t go wrong when you’re getting McLachlan’s songwriting, plus the proper acoustics, along with a tight band.
What’s more, Mirrorball 2.0 makes you think you’ve been to the concert. She’s playful with the audience without being overly chatty, as she performs full, uninterrupted numbers, rather than piecemeal compositions or medleys. Not only is the sound quality impeccable, the louder, percussive rock-oriented selections—such as “Building a Mystery” and “Plenty”—gel comfortably with quieter, reflective tunes like “Good Enough” and “Do What You Have to Do”. Further, Mirrorball shines with contributions from Sean Ashby (guitars and vocals), Camille Henderson (vocals), Brian Minato (bass), David Sinclair (guitars and vocals), Vince Jones (keyboards and vocals), and Ashwin Sood (drums, percussion, and vocals).
As a package, I found most of these performances to be superior to their studio counterparts. With so many highlights—“Witness”, “Ice”, “Adia”, “Sweet Surrender”, and “Fear”, along with the selections already mentioned—it’s impossible to choose which is the best. One downside was “Ice Cream”, which gives us an interestingly fresh tempo, but is mildly weakened from the audience participation problem I alluded to earlier. Also, the album version has a more intimate, in-your-ear quality to it.
On balance, Mirrorball 2.0 deserves top honors. It showcases the heights of McLachlan’s craft while rendering the singer as personable and down-to-earth.
As it captures the heart of Sarah McLachlan’s brilliant live performance, Mirrorball: The Complete Concert is a must-have.