By Mark Guarino
To disappear for five years, then quietly return and fill a stadium is not an easy feat and Sarah McLachlan knew it. Many times during her show Tuesday at the United Center, she marveled at the size of the crowd as if not expecting it, then stepped back and blushed at the welcoming reception.
McLachlan, 36, last toured in 1999, the year she ended Lilith Fair, the three-year touring festival that featured a menagerie of women performers, from Missy Elliott to Bonnie Raitt. Its purpose was to demonstrate a tour of all adult women performers can be commercially viable, even though the span of time between then and now has contradicted that goal. Since Lilith ended, adult women have been missing from the Top 20. With the exception of Norah Jones and Alicia Keyes, who are both in their early twenties, the only female performers are teenage pop stars more likely sold based on the raunch standards of MTV than not.
McLachlan’s enduring popularity plays to a faithful fanbase that’s purposely removed itself from the loop. During her two-hour, 24-song show, McLachlan played songs, lushly performed by her seven-member band, and with themes of longing, regret and obsession. Introducing the song “Ice,” she said it was “probably the most depressing song I’ve ever written.” “The more depressing, the more joy I have singing,” she said. She knew her audience too, introducing a song with a story about breast feeding her new daughter.
Wrapped inside a set that resembled an enchanted forest, the show neared many precious moments, but it was held off through the restraint shown in McLachlan’s stately voice that slid through octaves with yearning and gracefully held all the pieces together like a fine fabric. Her band, including her husband and drummer Ashwin Sood, shifted into different configurations for variety, from huddling together on the side of the stage as a front porch country outfit to leaving the instruments behind to sing multiple harmonies.
The surprise of the night came with two of her best known songs, “Sweet Surrender” and “Possession.” Both prompted the crowd to their feet to dance, a contrast to the largely somber mood. The cresting choruses and bustling rhythms suggest more of her songs would benefit from dance remixes and that they are one step removed from the gothic dance floor appeal of Siouxsie Sioux.
McLachlan moved from piano to guitar through the show but its most affecting moments came when she was solo at the piano. There, on songs like “Angel,” the nuances of her voice came to full fruition. Through such a simple presentation, she showed she could indeed bring a stadium to complete silence.