What do you call a Canadian singer-songwriter and musician who speaks with an Irish accent, sells out the Birmingham Town Hall on a Sunday evening, has sold over 15 million albums world-wide reaching multi-platinum status in a number of countries, has enjoyed a 30 year career and plays 2 hours of ethereal music with a standing ovation at the end the performance?
You call her "Loreena McKennitt", for that be her name and on 10th March the multi-award winning Canadian songster brought her Lost Souls Tour to the only performance in the West Midlands.
She performed the previous night in Edinburgh and the next night at Manchester before going on to London, Amsterdam and across Europe, finishing on 29th July at Lyon as a welcome return for her ardent fan base which was in much in evidence on a blustery March Sunday evening at Birmingham Town Hall.
It was a bewitching evening of what some might tag "folk", others "world music" or just plain "Loreena McKennitt`s Lost Souls Tour" to promote her 10th studio album and her first commercially available music in 12 years. The setting, Birmingham Town Hall, had marvellous acoustics for the Canadian musical magician who conjured up aural Celtic fairy tales mixed with Arabian soundscapes on such classic songs from her back catalogue as Marrakesh Night Market and Marco Polo. The new material seamlessly blended with the old framed by the building`s impressive Roman Revival civic architecture and the magnificence of it`s organ above the stage, commissioned in 1834 with it`s huge 32 foot pipes that were incorporated into it`s decorative case front that was bathed in alternating colours, from green, red and blue soaring above arches of tall candles as Loreena either sang at her piano, bobbed around the stage playing an accordion or sat at the same harp that she used all those years ago busking in the market at Toronto trying to earn enough money to make her first album.
The crowd, who were diverse in age range, lapped it up with glee from the opening numbers Bonny Portmore and All Souls Night to Dante`s Prayer which closed a wonderful evening of two hours` expert musicianship from Loreena and her band. The barometer of any concert is how the audience react: tonight they were dancing in their seats, laughing along with Loreena`s jokes or sitting enraptured as she told them of her travels around the world to learn about Celtic music. The faithful queued up to buy her merchandise when doors opened at 7pm, took to their seats at 7.30pm, queued up again during the intermission at 8.30pm and again at 10pm when Loreena and her band left the stage after the encores. In an age of Spotify and digital music streaming it was good to see so many people parting with real hard-earned cash to buy real music. A hastag for the evening could be RealPeopleRealMusic..
Loreena McKennitt`s new album, Lost Souls, was described by The Times as being "suffused with a mood of Celtic folk classicism that is undoubtably calming, possibly enriching". Accompanying Loreena on this tour were fellow musicians and long-time collaborators Brian Hughes on guitar and Celtic bouzouki, Caroline Lavelle on cello, Hugh Marsh on violin, Dudley Philips on double bass and Robert Brian on drums and all immediately recognisable on stage to the fans in the audience. They all played on the new album and Loreena described her band to the audience as "excellent musicians and excellent company on the tour bus".
Loreena McKennit has come a long way on her musical journey and not just from Ontario in Canada. She has been awarded a large number of honours and awards including Knight of the National Order of Arts and Letters of the Republic of France in 2013 and the appointment as Honorary Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 2011. In her early life she had enrolled at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg to become a veterinarian only to discover fellow folk musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. She was heavily influenced by her Irish and Scottish heritage and taught herself to play the harp, went to Ireland to hear folk music for herself, fell in love with Celtic music and returned to Canada. She then busked around Toronto in order to earn money to record her first album, Elemental and Lost Souls is her 10th studio album.
All of Loreena McKennitt`s music has been released under her own company, Quinlan Road, where she resides in Stratford, Ontario. She originally sold her recordings by mail order but now her music is distributed internationally by Verve Records, Universal Music Group, Keltia Musique and SpV GMbH. "I appear before you tonight", Loreena told her adoring audience, "as a person who continues to process what it means to be an artist, a citizen and simply a human being. I am grateful that our paths have crossed at least a few times along the way and hopefully there will be more occasions where they do so again; and yet I have learned that they future may not always be in our hands. So, I shall take this opportunity tonight to thank each and every one of you for being a travelling companion on this journey so far".
Lost Souls is Loreena McKennitt`s first studio album since 2006`s Ancient Muse. She produced the album herself and, like all of her music, she pulls influences into her work from across the world with Middle Eastern, Spanish and Canadian musical traditions blending seamlessly with her Celtic core in a successful cornucopia of sound that give each song emotional weight. Loreena is best described as a teller of tales with her music. For example, here is Spanish Guitars and Night Plazas and the audience at Birmingham Town Hall was treated with solid Flamenco guitars and the transportation, through the music, into a night market under olive trees and street food. Another song, the instrumental Marco Polo, immersed the Town Hall into a Saharan soundscape of palm trees standing stark against camels and sand dunes. To the delight of her fans, Loreena`s literary influences were on parade: here is John Keats in the lyrics to La Belle Dame Sans Merci about a knight who tragically falls in love with a fairy and awoke, cold and alone, on a hillside; there is W.B. Yeats in the lyrics of The Ballad of the Fox Hunter and the album and tour itself are named after Ronald Wright`s book, A Short History of Progress.
Unfairly compared to Enya, Loreena`s music is more grounded in traditional and classical styles and uses literary sources as springboards for interpretation such as The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, The Lady of Shalott by Lord Tennyson and Prospero`s Speech by Shakespeare from The Tempest. Crowd-pleasers are songs from the album that beat the Celtic heart: Ages Past, Ages Hence, A Hundred Wishes and the contemplative The Ballad of the Fox Hunter which showcases Loreena`s piano work. Swelling instrumentals and Loreena`s emotive voice burrowed a path straight to the audience`s heart in effortless harmony. It is difficult to listen to these songs and remain unmoved. Each new song from the album hold their own in grace and beauty when compared to the rest of Loreena McKennit`s musical canon.
In between the songs Loreena, in her breathy voice, returns to her favourite topic: trees. The concepts of "home" and "trees" inform her music and repertoire with the audience. "This is my own Celtic roots subconsciously surfacing through my love of the natural world", she explained sitting at her harp "and especially of trees as spoken to in Ages Past, Ages Hence, in the song Lost Souls or indeed in previously-recorded pieces such as Bonny Portmore, Two Trees or even The Mummers` Dance".
When you have sold over 15 million albums world-wide, what is it that you talk about on stage during a tour to promote your latest album in 12 years? Trees. "In recent years" said Loreena, "my appreciation for our noble trees has only increased. Our collective survival depends on our respect for the natural world, not our dominion over it". It has been worth the wait to see Loreena McKennitt back in the West Midlands. It has been over 12 years since the Birmingham Town Hall audience have heard any new material but the crowds were content.
The album, Lost Souls and Tour have done the job. The acoustics in the Town Hall were wonderful and best to hold the atmosphere and beauty of the music. Arguably, Loreena`s voice has only gotten better in the intervening 12 years. The quality and variety of the instrumental work, added to Loreena`s voice, transported the senses and painted lush soundscapes through the audience`s ears and into their minds and hearts. Tonight, there were no "Lost Souls" - only "Found Kindred in Music" who accompanied Loreena and her fellow musicians on a musical journey to Galicia, which has Spanish and Arabian roots, then to Ireland to the sound of Loreena`s harp and then journeying onwards somewhere down the Silk Road and into infinity.
This reviewer found himself humming Spanish Guitar and Night Plazas all the way home, miming Spanish Flamenco air guitar, hand claps and castanets.
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