Loreena McKennitt @ DAR Constitution Hall

Despite feeling rather under the weather, last night I went to see Loreena McKennitt play at DAR Constitution Hall here in DC, a very swanky 3700-seat theatre-style venue. Sadly, I was kind of in the wrong headspace for this show, as my attention kept wandering and I was generally a little spaced out. This was too bad because if I had been completely with it, this could have been one of my favorite shows so far this year. McKennitt’s music is very evocative, rich in imagery, history and detail, and this all really comes through in concert. She has a nine-piece band playing all sorts of instruments — lutes, oud, bouzouki, lyra, hurdy-gurdy, violin, cello, various types of percussion — and she herself rotated between piano, harp and accordion, all while singing with that inimitable voice of hers.

The setlist drew almost equally from her last four studio albums, without too many big surprises (perhaps the biggest surprise for me was a rendition of “The Lady of Shalott” from The Visit, which is still probably my favorite of her long-form poems set to music). Seeing the music live gave it a whole new dimension, though; on record, much of McKennitt’s music has a nearly soporific effect on me, perfect for chilling out; but in concert, the rich arrangements and deep harmonies took on a life of their own and made every moment fascinating, even despite my state of mind. And when Brian Hughes cranked up the electric guitar, there were some positively Floydian moments, as in “The Bonny Swans,” in which all I could think of was David Gilmour in his prime. Many of the more upbeat songs had an almost fusionish intensity in the instrumental arrangements. This was no new-agey wallpaper music.

I took the opportunity to pick up an advance copy of her Nights at the Alhambra DVD/2CD set; I watched part of the DVD today and it seems very representative of the performance I saw. If anything, that’s my only complaint: despite some of the instrumental fireworks, most of these songs, including the older material, were played very much straight, without much in the way of rearragement or adornment. While the strength of the arrangements alone made seeing this music live worthwhile, I would have liked some more variation from what’s on the studio albums (or, for that matter, the 1999 double-live album Live in Paris and Toronto. Nevertheless, it was a pretty fabulous show that I appreciated even though I know I could have absolutely loved it had I been in the right state of mind.

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