Loreena McKennitt,
The Visit
(Quinlan Road, 1991;
Warner Brothers, 1992)

I was standing with a friend in a basement-level pagan shop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, waiting patiently while she rooted through the racks of tarot decks seeking the perfect set for another friend. I remember feeling uncomfortable there; the shop seemed designed with a "Look at us! See how different we are" theme in mind, and it felt somehow oppressive and heavy to me. I was hoping my pal Diane would finish searching soon.

Then the music -- some nebulous background gunk -- ended, and the shopkeeper moved ponderously to the dusty old stereo to switch tapes. She pressed "play" and returned to her seat. The room lightened. I heard the droning sound of a tamboura, the faint strains of a gypsy fiddle, then a drum riff and a voice from someplace else. She sang at first without words, but the sound moved me, drew my attention and snared it firmly in its grasp.

And then she sang. Pagan imagery swirled around me, vaguely Celtic to my ear, but not specifically so. And that voice....

I don't think I moved at all during the song, except perhaps to glide a few paces closer to the stereo speakers. The song ended and I felt a deep sense of disappointment ... but then the mournful tones of an uillean bagpipe filled the silence. And then she started singing again. It was so very beautiful ... but then Diane tugged my arm and announced her readiness to go, her quest unfulfilled.

I told her to wait and made a beeline to the counter. The woman there seemed unsurprised when I asked for the name of the album and singer. "Loreena McKennitt," she said. "Some Irish singer." Yes, she said, they did sell her music there. No, sorry, they were all out of them at the time. Damn. Luckily, I found a copy of The Visit at another shop down the street and headed home with my prize.

It was even more than I imagined. From the first notes of "All Souls Night" and "Bonny Portmore" through "The Old Ways" and "Cymbeline," I was entranced. But, for the record (and for those confused folks out there ... since I recently found Loreena filed in the Irish section of a large music store in Toronto despite the massive section supposedly devoted to Canadian artists) Loreena McKennitt is Scots-Canadian, not Irish. But her passion for Celtic traditions, musical and otherwise, is clear, particularly in her earlier albums. By the time of The Visit she had begun branching out more in her musical explorations, and later albums would dig deeply into musical traditions from across Europe and Asia.

There's not a single track on this album that I dislike. Besides "All Souls Night" and the passionate traditional song "Bonny Portmore" (made famous in various movie and television soundtracks), The Visit includes standouts like her musical interpretation of Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," the sensual "Tango to Evora," the deeply moving "Courtyard Lullaby," a haunting "The Old Ways" and the most emotional, heart-wrenching version of "Greensleeves" I've ever heard. The sombre "Cymbeline," does justice to a song by William Shakespeare that surely does the Bard proud. (And yes, that list of standout tunes does cover nearly all of 'em.)

Besides those instances already mentioned, all words and music were written by Loreena. Besides her voice (at times lyrical, at others purely syllabic), she plays harp, accordion, keyboards and bodhran, and she has assembled an excellent group of musicians to fill out the sound. They are: Hugh Marsh on fiddle, George Koller on fiddle, tamboura, cello, sitar and bass, Brian Hughes on guitars and balalaika, Anne Bourne on cello, Rick Lazar on percussion, Patrick Hutchinson on uillean pipes, Al Cross on drums and Tom Hazlett on bass.

Since that day in New Hope I've tracked down every album Loreena has released, before or since The Visit . All are excellent, in varying degrees, and all are welcome additions to my collection. None, however, has ever had the same effect on me that The Visit had that first time I heard the tamboura come rising out of a dark and dingy New Hope shop.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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