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19 mai 2007

McKennitt returns to delight Celtic music fans

There was cause for rejoicing among Celtic music fans last night. After eight years away from touring, Canada's Loreena McKennitt returned to Victoria, once again conjuring up her ethereal Celtic/world-music tapestries.

I'd forgotten how prominently atmosphere figures at a McKennitt concert. The petite, red-haired singer-songwriter - who performs again tonight at the Royal - sang from a stage set resembling the interior of a Persian palace. McKennitt appeared in a spotlight amid royal blue draperies, an exotic ogee arch and fog-machine clouds gently drifting overhead.

Dressed in a coat-gown with a faux leopard-skin peeking out underneath, she seemed in fine form despite her hiatus from the road. In particular, McKennitt's voice sounded clear and strong.

"What a great pleasure it is to be back here again," she told an enthused full house. They ultimately rewarded her 2 1/2 -hour concert with three standing ovations.

McKennitt - switching between harp, accordion, electric keyboard and grand piano - was backed by a nine-piece band reflecting the catholic nature of her musical interests. While cellist Caroline Lavelle and violin whiz Hugh Marsh tended to dominate, the group also included a Greek lute, tabla, hurdy gurdy, Celtic bouzouki and the violin-like lyra.

For those who love the side of McKennitt veering closest to traditional Celtic music, nothing topped Bonny Portmore. This old song, about Irish forests being logged for shipbuilding, benefited from her singing which - although affectingly girlish - was powerful and true. The melody of Bonny Portmore is beautiful, and the sparse cello/harp accompaniment worked wonderfully well.

Other traditional style pieces included McKennitt's song The Highway Man. Based on a poem by Alfred Noyes, it's a romantic tale with a stately Elizabethan feel. The same regal air permeated The Lady Of Shalott, a McKennitt piece based on the famous Tennyson poem.

Other compositions reflect the singer-songwriter's late-career interest in the European and Eastern influences on Celtic culture. For her song Caravanserai, from her new album An Ancient Music, McKennitt draws inspiration from a trip to Turkey, where it's believed Celts travelled around 300 BC. With the droning hum of various exotic instruments in the background, Caravanserai didn't sound like anything from British Isles - still, the soaring sound of the singer's distinctive voice made it sound her own.

At times, her music came close to the rock/world-music hybrid musicians such as Peter Gabriel have explored. Once or twice, rock-style drumming and electric guitar solos made a distinctly un-McKennitt-like appearance. Still, her arrangements consistently avoided bombast, and the integrity of her artistic vision tended to win out.

In a general sense, what this musician does is create a deeply romantic, old-world sanctuary from the electronic babble of 21st century life. If the hiss and twitter of iPods and cellphones get you down, a visit to McKennitt-land is like a trip to a new-age spa. Jangled nerves are soothed by the elemental buzz of ancient instruments.

That her show appears steeped in history makes the experience seem more profound. Close your eyes, and one feels linked to the empires of long-forgotten kings and tartan-clad nomads from thousands of years ago.

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