Loreena McKennitt
at Koningin Elisabethzaaal
(Queen Elisabeth Hall),
Antwerp, Belgium
(6 April 2007)

"Age cannot wither her," William Shakespeare said in reference to Cleopatra. However, in terms of musicians, he might say the same of Loreena McKennitt, Canadian singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and arranger of Celtic and world music. In her first tour of this century, McKennitt has awakened from a seemingly self-imposed exile from her fans to support An Ancient Muse, her 2006 CD release and "comeback" album after 1997's Book of Secrets.

Although she may have been out of the public eye for a few years, her fans have not forgotten her, nor has she them.

McKennitt's concerts have always, to me at least, resembled tightly orchestrated classical music performances in terms of their choreography and presentation. I can remember being presented with a programme in advance back at shows in the 1990s, and this tour is no exception to that rule. Surrounded by a stellar and stalwart band, most of them who have been playing with her for years (including the accomplished Brian Hughes on guitars and other string instruments, Hugh Marsh on violin, Caroline Lavelle on cello, Tim Landers on acoustic and electric basses, Rick Lazar on percussion and Donald Quan on keyboards, viola and other instruments), the stage resembles less of a folk/rock band and more of a classical setting. It's almost crowded with a total of 10 musicians and many more instruments present. Their places and positions are similar to previous tours, what with Hughes at stage right and the percussion and drums above on a slightly elevated level. And with the programme listing songs to be performed (with the warning that the set list is subject to change), the show flows more like a classical concert, with more music and little chat between songs.

Indeed, it's not until three songs in that McKennitt talks to the audience, welcoming us and introducing her influences for "Penelope's Song," her fourth number. The performance is intimate only in terms of how much the music reveals of its players. It's not an opportunity for McKennitt to gossip with her fans, nor even to discuss much of the stories behind the songs. However, she does take the time to point out that during their Copenhagen stop, she was told of a version of "The Bonny Swans" from the Faroe Islands as a way of explaining that song and how "songs in the traditional repertoire have many companions."

Tonight's focus is on the music, not the talk. On past tours, McKennitt was known to talk more, to explain more about the song's origins and folklore. Her comparatively taciturn manner nowadays could be blamed on personal reticence, but perhaps it's more to do with the length of her songs, combined with the amount of material from which to narrow down her selections. Certainly, she herself seems hardly reticent as she energetically jumps to the beat whilst hugging her accordion to her chest on numbers such as "Santiago," when it seems the accordion is less an instrument and more of a dance partner. Less talk means that more songs can be performed. It's a trade-off, and whilst some fans might enjoy the between-song banter, others might prefer the chance to bask more in the sounds of the instruments and McKennitt's voice.

Her voice does come across more as an authentic instrument and not just as a conveyor of words. On "Santiago," for example, a song without actual lyrics, her voice takes on the lead melody from the guitar and violin; even when she's not singing, it's as if you can still hear her through the echoes of Hughes and Marsh. The violin and electric guitar, in particular, become intriguing companions on that number and on others, including both "The Lady of Shalott" and "The Bonny Swans" when the violin echoes the guitar's lead at each song's end, creating magical rhythmical conclusions.

Openings of other songs are just as unforgettable. "The Old Ways" starts with an uproar of music. But just as quickly, it decrescendos as the verses commence to lead to a final crescendo at the end. McKennitt's harp and Lavelle's cello create an elegant introduction for "The Lady of Shalott," and Sokratis Sinopoulous's lyra on "The Gates of Istanbul" adds to the Middle-Eastern atmosphere. In terms of mood, Ben Grossman's hurdy-gurdy also stands out, particularly on "Santiago" and "Marco Polo."

Older songs from earlier albums, such as "The Lady of Shalott," "The Bonny Swans" and even "She Moved from the Fair" from McKennitt's first release, Elemental, are combined with newer songs from An Ancient Muse, her latest album and the one she is touring to promote. However, only six songs from the new CD make an appearance this night, with the other 12 all coming from earlier discs. She seems to realise that there are long-time fans here who don't just want to hear the new release.

To those long-time fans present, including this one, Loreena looked and sounded as she did during her previous decade. Clad in a floor-length black coat and skirt, her long red hair shining in the stage lights, she doesn't appear to have aged. Nor does her voice give away the years between tours. Truly, age does not appear to have withered her in any shape, means or form. Unfortunately, her fans do age. Therefore, Loreena, please don't wait so long to tour again, all right?

by Ellen Rawson
21 April 2007

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