Sarah McLachlan's New-Age Revival

Sultry songstress echoes Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel and captures the spirit of Van Morrison.

MADISON, Wis. -- Decked out in a black boa and purple sequined

dress -- perfect for the Easter and Passover weekend -- Sarah McLachlan

seemed as ready as anyone for a night out on the town.

And, in a way, there was a cause for celebration -- for her fans at least.

The sultry songstress played to a sold-out crowd of 2,200 at the Civic Center on

Sunday and put on a dazzling demonstration of her power as a live performer. Lost in her presence alone, the crowd hung on every word and shrieked every time the impish singer's voice broke into its highest register.

On record, McLachlan's songs can be frustrating, their ethereal guitar and

keyboard textures suggesting a deeper meaning than her lyrics can sometimes

support. In concert, however, her voice and stage presence, along with her

band's crack playing -- harder and more adventurous than on her albums -- are

undeniably commanding.

Against a backdrop that ranged from a nautical-map tapestry (replete with sun

and moon symbols) to a darkened starscape, and bathed in brilliant blue and

purple light, McLachlan danced and sang with a power made all the more

endearing by her humility. She seemed genuinely touched when fans shouted,

"We love you, Sarah," several times throughout the evening, and she ended

most of her songs with a simple bow and hands palmed together in front of her

face as if in grateful prayer.

With moves that ranged from playful to sexy, McLachlan pushed her music to a

soulful, emotional level. While her songs echo those of folk-rock pioneer Joni

Mitchell and ambient rocker Peter Gabriel, the spirit of her performance is more

akin to Van Morrison's attempts to harness the energies of the soul and

the heart into something tangible.

And then there's the simple but undeniable power of her voice. The

words become secondary to the sound itself, which moves deftly from a whisper

to a throaty growl to a soaring wail. Drawing from all four of her

albums, but relying most heavily on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and

Surfacing, McLachlan painted delicate numbers such as "I Love

You" with more aggressive vocal strokes than she uses on the studio versions.

She was flanked by two guitarists, who provided the evening's

instrumental focus. In particular, Sean Ashby provided squeezed feedback

and tremolo-drenched leads from his Rickenbackers and Fenders, which acted

as an edgy foil to Vincent Jones' lush keyboard washes.

While the show didn't quite reach the celebratory heights of last

year's Lilith Fair, the all-women summer tour that McLachlan founded, it came

close, feeling at times more like a new-age revival than a rock concert. There's

something life-affirming about even McLachlan's most personally painful songs

that moves the listener.

At this performance, many fans sang along, eyes closed and heads back, in

fervent testimony to just how deeply they related to her songs.

"She moves your soul," said Jodi Hofschild of Madison. "It's all-encompassing;

it's her disposition, her character, her demeanor."

This feeling extended to fans who didn't know what to specifically make of

McLachan's words. "Her lyrics are pretty deep, and I definitely relate to them on

a personal level," said Sarah Graef of Madison.

At the end of the night, washed in the glow of a yellow spotlight and the flicker of

candles, McLachlan brought the show to a simple, elegant close with a solo

piano version of



Then she departed, wearing a smile as wide -- almost -- as those on the faces of

the fans who had come to see and hear her.