Loreena McKennitt ended her concert Tuesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre by singing the closing speech from "The Tempest," delivered in the play by Shakespeare's alter-ego, the master artificer Prospero.
This mystically inclined folk singer from Canada isn't quite ready to move in that company. She is more like Prospero's daughter, the enchanting naif, Miranda. McKennitt's sparkling soprano voice was as lovely and strong as you could wish, but she was severely limited by a lack of fire, assertiveness and clear-eyed vision in her music.
It led to a narrow emotional range and occasionally flimsy thinking, taking some of the luster off an evening that offered much attractive, expertly rendered singing and playing. Those qualities were enough to win a closing ovation from an audience of about 700 people who had listened with hushed attentiveness.
McKennitt's style is a hybrid she has been cultivating on record since 1985: Call it traditional Celtic New Age world music for six-piece chamber-rock ensemble--the chamber in this case being a dimly lit stage decorated with five large candelabra and three medieval tapestries as a backdrop.
Playing two sets totaling more than two hours, McKennitt and her five-man band struck moods plaintive, mystical and fervent. They drew primarily on the Celtic tradition, but with Middle Eastern and Spanish hues thrown in for variety and for the sake of a cross-cultural overlay that McKennitt, 37, took stilted pains to emphasize.
A sense of rhythmic tension and urgency in the Mediterranean stuff and a firm grounding in Celtic balladry kept McKennitt from drifting into New Agey slumber.
But her singing never conveyed the ferocity and sense of aching confrontation with a heartbreaking world that is essential to good traditional folk singing--not least the Celtic tradition, where the best singers will wring your heart. By temperament, it seems, McKennitt prefers to retreat to softer regions, leaping into mystery or escaping into a safe, mythic past.
Serious mysticism is a reaction to--actually, a rejection of--the worldly; sick of the corrupt earthly realm, the mystic seeks solace and enlightenment through contact with the divine. Had McKennitt shown both sides of that equation, her mystical journeys might have been earned.
Instead, they seemed like mere mood-setting, as inconsequential as the bland travelogues she strewed between songs. McKennitt talked of her sojourns in Morocco, Ireland and Spain, adopting the earnest, lecture-like and somewhat uncertain tone of a graduate student who hasn't yet learned to conduct a class with full confidence and ease.
At her worst, she babbled banality--as when, in her cross-cultural zeal, she commented that the Celts resembled the North American Indians--both were divided into tribes, each with its own folkways and arts. Imagine that.
McKennitt topped that when, marshaling more evidence in favor of her theory of cross-cultural sharing and commonality, she referred to the period when Muslims, Jews and Christians were "cohabiting" medieval Spain. She did not add the obvious: that this cohabitation ended with a little unpleasantness called the Spanish Inquisition, a horrific outcome that established an all-too-relevant precedent for failed multiculturalism, one that is being replayed today among the Croats, Serbs and Muslims who cohabited Bosnia until some of them fell to disinhabiting large swaths of it.
Once again, McKennitt wants to enjoy her visions of a world that works, without confronting the reality of a world that doesn't. Idealistic visions can be poignant and artistically compelling, but they lose their emotional and intellectual force if they fail to reckon first with reality.
The closest McKennitt came to addressing harsher realities was her song "Dickens' Dublin," a plaintive but innocuous lament of poverty and homelessness. Soon she was off into safe regions of myth.
She finished with her adaptation of "The Bonny Swans," an old Celtic tale of death and enchantment, and "The Lady of Shalott," her setting of a Tennyson poem based on the legends of Camelot.
Not every myth requires a feminist reinterpretation, but "The Lady of Shalott," with its account of a woman fated to die if she follows her heart's desire, surely does. There was not a whiff of an ironic or bitter edge in McKennitt's conventionally fervent and bittersweet rendition, which treated the poem as a quaintly romantic relic of olde England.
Setting aside its key weakness of unsubstantiated profundity, McKennitt's concert had its charms. Within its slender emotional range, her voice was marvelous (a greater emotional range might have helped make the singer more compelling as a stage personality; one tended not to be riveted by a performer who, it swiftly became clear, would produce no surprises).
Hugh Marsh, on electric violin, was the ace of the band, spinning off solos that combined high lyricism with a sharp tonal edge. Toward the end, when Marsh's swift, swirling sallies had begun to sound repetitious, guitarist Brian Hughes stepped forward, switching from the unobtrusive acoustic guitars and oud he had been playing in favor of a full-toned electric guitar that dominated the homestretch.
Hughes' lightly distorted fret work reinvigorated the fiddle, Marsh at last having something to play off of in sparring sequences. McKennitt plucked capably at a Celtic harp taller than herself or contributed piano, synthesizer and accordion.
An evening with McKennitt was a cloistered interlude in a carefully pruned garden of tonal delights, with a touch of mystery-as-delicacy. Just the sort of place Prospero's island was at the start of "The Tempest," before the real world intruded and things started to get interesting.