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All photos: Kevin Hulse

It’s strange hearing Sarah McLachlan, folk icon of the 1990s, ask if you’re having a good time over a professional orchestra chaotically tuning up. She remarked that it was “such a cool feeling,” the power behind her as she sang. It also was strange to hear what she said after her first few songs; she announced, “That’s it for the happy stuff, now we’re in the murky stuff.” It was a running joke that evening. She said two or three times during the show that she preferred playing dark, turbulent songs, and that she tries to throw a couple upbeat songs in every album to keep people from being bored. It’s strange to hear she likes darker music because McLachlan mostly sweetly said “thank you” and occasionally drank from very humble mug on the piano and talked about the greatness of everything.

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After prepping the audience for the gloom to come, she and the band and the orchestra (the orchestra!) dove into “Black and White,” a track off her 1997 album Surfacing. “Black and White,” like many songs from her older material, has a way of winding itself around your head. In a moment of real humanity, she finished singing, shook her head and picked uncomfortably at her clothes– it’s not the heat in DC, it’s the humidity, as every grandmother that lives in the western part of America says.

McLachlan mostly played old songs: “Don’t Give Up on Us,” “World on Fire,” “Good Enough” (“A song about sisterhood,” she said), the oft-remixed “Silence,” the falsetto hymn “Fear.” She also played a few from her 2010 album, like the newer “Love Come,” which she explained was originally meant for an independent film that she wrote because she liked the script. (She later took it back because she hated the movie.) She also played “Rivers of Love” which was her own personal love song she said, “because all these love songs are for other people, I thought I’d write one for myself.”

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McLaughlin was backed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, which is an incredible feat in itself. Her conductor, Sean O’Loughlin, works with different musicians in each city they visit to ensure all their performances feel similar. “Sweet Surrender,” “Adia” and “Angel” felt like they were written to be supported by an orchestra. “Sweet Surrender,” in fact, had an almost cinematic opening from the musicians. “Possession,” the song before the first false goodbye, was apparently a highlight for McLachlan who danced around the stage and smiled, really smiled, for that whole performance. The encore came along, and “Bring on the Wonder” and “Angel” were played two haunting and beautiful songs that need no further analysis than that. McLachlan then said, “It’s come to that part in the show where we need some ice cream,” and had the audience sing along to the song of that name. The audience clapped and cheered faithfully. When McLachlan and her orchestra and her conductor and her band left the stage, they gracefully went out into the night, into their cars, and to home.

If you are satisfied to hear the songs played, and that McLachlan put on an incredible performance vocally and musically, please read no further. Something’s bothering me, though, and I feel like I owe it to you to say what it is that’s bothering me.

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I get the idea that Sarah McLachlan is a charitable person. You’ve seen her ASPCA commercial, the one with sad animals looking into the camera while she’s relating their plight in a voiceover. Describing herself as coming from a middle-class Canadian family, she told the concert audience that night (in an extended discussion on her gratitude for her current life) how her visit to Thailand and Cambodia with World Vision changed her outlook on life forever, and in the same breath, asked us all to visit their booth and sponsor a child. She also let her bandmates and opener, married couple come rock band Whitehorse (two great singers), sing two of their own songs during her set. So her generosity, and the fact that I listened to “Surfacing” on repeat throughout sixth grade (AND went to a Lilith Fair concert in Philadelphia, since we’re in full disclosure mode) makes it painful for me to write what I am about to write.

McLachlan slung an acoustic guitar over herself in order to start playing “Hold On” toward the beginning of the show. It was at this point I started looking around at the presentation, struck by the impression I took from it. McLachlan, whose album count is in the double digits, is a superstar of ’90s power female rock with a great (seriously, great) voice and catchy songs that have repeat play value. She already has a best of, as well as various live albums and a B-side album. At this concert, she wore a flowing white shirt and some very long, very wide metallic gold pants. It can be kindly put that she had a look akin to a toga, evoking a Greek goddess. But really, it reminded me of what one would wear on their farewell tour going through Vegas (I’m looking at you, Cher). I’m not suggesting McLachlan is retiring from music, or has poor taste in dress, that’s not the point.

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Her last album was only released in 2010, and McLachlan only looked a bit more dressed up than I would imagine her (subjective, ok?). But picture this: McLachlan, dressed in gold and white stood in front of wide, gauzy white hangings that extended almost to the floor and an orchestra, playing professionally and beautifully to the female pop anthems of the ’90s. The songs sound as good as they did years ago and McLachlan’s vocal power hasn’t diminished, but something was very different. The energy was low, even for a sit-down concert. Listening to her 2010 album Laws of Illusion in anticipation of this show, I noticed her newer songs were backed very heavily with studio-perfect instrumentation (including wandering guitar solos that feel completely out of place) and polished production, and I wasn’t sure what to think. What is it about that final plane of success that takes an artist to this placid ocean of calm, comfortable soft rock? The concert was a symphonically arranged doldrum of Sarah McLachlan’s catalog.

As I mentioned before, it was hot. McLachlan pushed her vocal power to the limit (“Sweet Surrender” and “Angel” were of particular excellence since they lend themselves especially to challenging her range). Maybe there was more depth than I could perceive behind her playing that night. Maybe it’s hard to see it in a woman who’s so used to playing her songs again and again, one who’s released music and toured since 1988. Maybe I should have expected it, it’s Sarah McLachlan right? Maybe I should give her a break. But maybe not. I expected more.

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