Vulcan’s Peak

Loreena’s latest

April 27, 2007 12:41 pm

When Loreena McKennitt’s latest album, An Ancient Muse, came out last Novemer, it was the first new material she had released in nine years. I don’t think she’s done a real tour in that time, either, so happening to be on the tour route has pretty much made my month! A singer, instrumentalist, composer, and lyricist who records under her own label, Loreena is a real inspiration and I admire her a great deal. So take any criticism that slips in with that in mind.

An Ancient Muse is perhaps not her strongest album to date (mind you, I have three candidates for that title), but it does have many lovely pieces. The style and sound are the Loreena we know and love, mixing the Middle Eastern influences she has explored since 1994’s The Mask and Mirror with the expressive Celtic palatte that marks all of her music. Muse reminds me of Mask and Mirror in that it seems to be set in a more Eastern atmosphere than recordings like 1997’s The Book of Secrets, which stays mostly in western Europe (“The Mummers’ Dance,” “Skellig,” “The Highwayman,” “Dante’s Prayer,” etc.), but looks to the East a few times along the way. Muse seems to live in Greece, Turkey, Arabia: the first track is called “Incantation,” but it seems also to be an invocation in the Homeric sense of calling for guidance from the album’s eponymous muse. Homer is more directly referenced later in the album through “Penelope’s Song,” a haunting call from Odysseus’s patient queen, and in between we visit “The Gates of Istanbul,” walk “Beneath a Phrygian Sky,” and water our camels at a “Caravanserai.” We only leave that space a couple of times, going to the Scottish border in “The English Ladye and the Knight” and putting on our yarmulkes to dance a “Sacred Shabbat.”

Though I love that Muse opens with an invocation, the album doesn’t really find its voice until “Caravanserai,” the third track; it’s the first one on the disc with a refrain that you want to join in. The tuneful beauty holds up to closer inspection, too, as the lyrics explore what the concept of “home” means if you live a nomadic lifestyle. Following it, “The English Ladye” presents characters who are very bound to their walls — both physical castle walls and the boundary between Scotland and northern England.

“Penelope’s Song,” “Beneath a Phrygian Sky,” and “Never-Ending Road” have also become favorites of mine, and “Kecharitomene” holds its own among the best of Loreena’s instrumental pieces. Buying the album from Barnes and Noble also gets you a second disc with “Raglan Road,” which is nice as well.

I was particularly fascinated during the concert by watching the instrumentalists: how often do you get to see a hurdy-gurdy play almost every song? Loreena herself changed instruments between songs, sometimes playing the harp, sometimes keyboard or accordion (yes, I said accordion), often piano. There were eight or nine instrumentalists around her — the cello got a lot of excercise and there were four or five different kinds of drums, played by three or four drummers. Violin, viola, and something else that was played with a bow. Two men played both accoustic and electric guitar and bass. The guitarist also had a mandolin-looking instrument — the program calls it a Celtic Bouzouki — some songs called for both that and the electric guitar, so he would wear the guitar and had the bouzouki on a stand where he could stand behind the stand and play it around his guitar! Loreena referred to the instrumentalists as her “idling Porsches,” because they are capable of so much more than they get to do in her songs.

Loreena was lovely and the crowd absolutely adored her. Mostly they went straight from one song to the next, but a few times she paused to speak between numbers. She talked about her travels and the background of a couple of pieces (sounding like the liner notes in her albums, which are always so interesting), introduced the musicians, and talked a little bit about touring, which she compared to cooking — after all the traveling, writing, recording, etc., a concert is the meal where she finally gets to share what she has prepared.

The majority of the songs they played were from old albums, but they also played more from the new CD than from any other one. If you’d like to re-create the experience, you can pull together:

She Moved through the Fair (Elemental)
The Gates of Istanbul (Ancient Muse)
Mummers’ Dance (Book of Secrets)
Bonny Portmore (The Visit)
The Highwayman (Book of Secrets)
Dante’s Prayer (Book of Secrets)
The Bonny Swans (Mask and Mirror)
Caravanserai (Ancient Muse)
Raglan Road (Ancient Muse)
The Mystic’s Dream (Mask and Mirror)
Santiago (Mask and Mirror)
The Lady of Shalott (The Visit)
Beneath a Phrygian Sky (Ancient Muse)
The Old Ways (The Visit)
Never-Ending Road (Ancient Muse)
Beltane Fire Dance (Parallel Dreams)
Penelope’s Song (Ancient Muse)

Yes, two encores!

I was impressed and surprised that she chose to do both Highwayman and Lady of Shalott, probably the two longest songs in her repetoire. They didn’t seem long, though… It did make me think about having to remember all those words all night, because she dropped a line in Highwayman — though of course she was right on with the next line and probably anyone who didn’t know all the words wouldn’t have noticed. I wonder if it’s easier to remember words to songs when you’ve written them yourself?

And yes…I got the t-shirt. The front says “Tell me, O Muse, of those who travelled far and wide,” which is the opening of the Odyssey.

2 Responses to “Loreena’s latest”

Pug wrote a comment on April 28, 2007

I can’t wait until she comes to Scottsdale in two weeks! *has his tickets ready*

Odette wrote a comment on April 28, 2007

You are going to have so much fun!

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