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News & Comment

A Lighter Side of Life – k. d. lang – Music Hall, Aberdeen – 21st July, 2019

22 July 2019

Back in 2002, Tony Bennett introduced his duet with k d lang on a live album. This was no ordinary introduction; this was Bennett at his most lyrical talking about the fact that there had been, and were, many great performers in the world but he believed that Kathryn Dawn Lang was in the pantheon which already contained three artists that had been blessed with a destiny. The three he named were Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf and Hank Williams. It went beyond success, he said; he believed that these three had reached immortality. He believed that k d lang would join them. There was no doubting his sincerity as his voice trembled with emotion. It is easy to see why tonight at the Music Hall. It is never easy to break down the whys and wherefores, and there will be no attempt here since there are too many factors that come into play which might be confused with other singers who come nowhere close to the brilliance and charisma on display tonight. The sum of the parts is far greater than merely giving a detailed description of the parts one by one.

The singer has taken a wonderful set piece with her, a couple of stage curtains in silver with gold frills, one full and draped sumptuously at the back of the stage and the other smaller one framing the front of the stage. It is a piece of old-fashioned vaudeville but very effective in the presentation and lighting of a show already rich with quality and showmanship. Lang and her band are already on stage as the curtains are pulled back. It might be said that the Music Hall might wish to follow this display up with an order for some of the same material since it gave a grandeur and focal point to the new décor in the refurbished venue.

The centrepiece of tonight’s performance is the album Ingenue which is now 27 years old. The set list follows the album which she describes as a “meditation on romance”. Lang starts with Save Me. She is at her most androgynous with short hair, white shirt and black suit although she performs bare footed. The first impression is of vulnerability and weariness but is difficult to say why since she is only 57 years of age and clearly in good voice. But, that impression continues into the next song, The Mind of Love. Then, she bursts into Miss Chatelaine and suddenly, she is transformed: smiling, dancing and sexually flirtatious. And at that point, the obvious dawns belatedly. This is more than mere singing; she is convincingly inhabiting the songs. Apart from the deliberately hammed-up performance of Miss Chatelaine (where she jokes that she is disappointed to find the audience “unshockable” by her risqué moves), this is improvisation and interpretation which looks more like re-living an experience as opposed to acting it out. It is based on timing, often very small and subliminal physical gestures, and a broad spectrum of vocal expression and intonation of incredible control. You will see few singers today so adept at this art; in fact, there may actually be none better.

The Ingenue album is well enough known. However, in a live context, the performance does highlight the wonderful group of seven players that she has backing her. The mellow freeform jazz side to that album is very much to the fore and it is impeccably played. The songs come across as passing moods as opposed to structured compositions. Daniel Clarke’s piano is a constant delight but if a particular moment were to be picked out from many, it might be David Pilch’s bass solo. Solos from bass players are unusual to start off with but this one was contained within the context of a song and was beautifully worked. The album’s songs, though, are so mellow and understated that the final song, the melancholic Constant Craving, seems lik an upbeat celebration in comparison, one to which the audience can enjoy singing along.

The set continues with songs from other albums. Lang is funny and irreverent with her introductions full of double entendres. She plays on her sexuality in a playful manner thanking the audience for “coming out” tonight, saying that it is like a strange form of acupuncture when kissed by bearded David Piltch, and stating that she does not speak the Gaelic language but it sounds (she pronounces it in the Irish way) as though she might know a little. She is generous in her introductions to her band. Not content with simply naming them, she stands beside each one and gives a little bit of background poking gentle fun with her observations. They are a group who have played with other A listers. They were David Piltch on bass (Elton John), Daniel Clarke on keyboards (Dixie Chicks), Grecco Burrato on guitars (Shakira), Rich Hinman on steel pedal guitar, banjo and guitar (Roseanne Cash), Andrew Borger on drums (Tom Waites); and Tahirah Memory and Moorea Masa on backing vocals

She finishes her set with three songs from fellow Canadian writers, Joni Mitchell’s Help Me, Neil Young’s Helpless and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. All are exquisitely done but Hallelujah is the piece de resistance. Its interpretation is literally jaw-dropping. Lang becomes a force of nature and every emotion is evoked to a level of intensity that sends shivers along the spine. Put simply…well, Bennett is better qualified than most to make the call and the opening comments in this review are simply confirmed writ large by this point. The audience has been enthusiastic throughout the show and stands as one to applaud the performance. But, the Aberdeen audience also does something which is unheard of. It continues to stand and applaud during the time that the band is offstage prior to the encore. Not a soul sits down. Such is the level of awe of everyone there. This is one of the great, “you had to be there” moments. (The video below of the performance at the Juno Awards in 2005 is great but has remarkably been improved upon.)

The encore of Sing It Loud where she places her hope for the world in the younger generation, and the cheeky Sleeping Alone are fine as they go but virtually superfluous after what has gone before.