Loreena McKennitt at the Keswick

A musical odyssey

Loreena McKennitt lives in the past, but in her case, that's a good thing. Her work is steeped in historical sensibilities, literary allusions including Yeats, Tennyson, and Shakespeare, and musico-ethnic influences ranging from the steppes of Asia to the valleys of Scotland, and everyplace else she's visited in her prodigious travels. Much of that experience was in evidence at her recent Keswick Theatre show.

“Twinkle, twinkle …” Loreena McKennitt in 2008. (Photo by johan.abit via Creative Commons/Flickr)

The first time I saw McKennitt in concert, during her 1997 tour for her album The Book of Secrets, she was touring with her full ensemble, an impressive collection of virtuosic musicians playing everything from the usual guitar, bass, and drums to more traditional and exotic instruments, such as Uilleann pipes, hurdy-gurdy, oud, and kemenche. On this tour, though, she chose a far more streamlined approach, playing only with longtime accompanists Brian Hughes on guitars and bouzouki and Caroline Lavelle on cello, recorder, and backing vocals, with McKennitt herself on lead vocals, piano, and harp. She acknowledged to the audience that this meant she wouldn’t be playing some of her best-known songs, such as her biggest U.S. hit, “The Mummer's Dance,” since such pieces required a larger sonic palette (such as complex percussion) than is possible with only three musicians.

Not that it really mattered all that much. McKennitt and her accompanists still managed to thoroughly entrance the Keswick audience with a goodly selection of her music, interspersed with musings on the origins and literary/historical background of the songs. More than just a musician, McKennitt has always been a dedicated explorer. She embarks on extensive journeys to thoroughly research and immerse herself in diverse cultures, looking for common threads to bring them together while also celebrating their uniqueness, and then turning the results of her odysseys into music. Her between-songs remarks allowed her both to give context to the songs and reveal something of their personal meanings to her as related to her own experiences.

Performing and pretending to perform

This makes the evening sound like a seminar on world music or Celtic history, topics on which McKennitt is certainly a recognized authority, but that would be unfair. She's also an entertainer with a sly sense of humor. After requesting the audience to refrain from taking pictures during the show, explaining that she found it too distracting during performance, she mentioned she'd willingly pose for photos while "pretending" to perform, such as while playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on the harp. Which she then proceeded to do, quite flawlessly, while a few smartphones duly captured the moment.

Over a career now spanning three decades, Loreena McKennitt remains a singular artist who resists easy categorization. Back in the days of record stores (remember those?), her albums could be hard to find, because one never knew whether they'd be in Folk, World Music, Celtic, New Age, or even Rock. But to pigeonhole McKennitt's music would be to diminish it. Its essence, and that of her entire artistic identity, encompasses all those genres and more besides, blending them into a rich aural mosaic that highlights their diversity while also emphasizing the common creative and spiritual human impulses shared by music of all cultures.

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