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Sarah McLachlan @The Hollywood Bowl, 7/15/11

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McLachlan posted to Twitter this photo of rehearsal with her band and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra ahead of last night's show
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I've always wondered if it was just an L.A. urban legend that people held on fiercely to their Hollywood Bowl box seat subscriptions--even leaving them to friends and family in their wills just to keep their clutches on those prime seats. With Friday and Saturday nights at the Bowl the dominant turf of the cinema, standard, and pops stylings of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, it seemed last night, as paired with venerable rock-pop songstress Sarah McLachlan, the crowd was appreciative of the stellar performance, if not exactly the typical McLachlan fans.

Having logged an as-yet un-tallied number of McLachlan shows since the 1993 release of her seminal border crossing (that's the Canada-U.S. border, yo) album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, last night at the Bowl was a night of firsts for me, and for McLachlan. After a delightful three-song performance by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, under the skillful direction of the charming Thomas Wilkins, McLachlan took the stage and confessed this was her first time performing at the historic venue.

The Bowl's acoustics did somewhat lessen the intimacy of her music, a sensory throwback to the ampitheatre shows from the early Lilith Fair years (minus the Birkenstocks), but the tones were invigorated with the lush depth of the full orchestra, particularly the strings, which was the one section that tended to stand out in the arrangements. In a skin-tight sparkling black dress and bare feet, McLachlan was at once a torch song diva and a flower child. She played an even-handed mix of new material from her album Laws of Illusion, as well as the now-expected set of major hits from her catalog, though sadly she did not, as she had for her last stop in L.A., go back farther than "Hold On," and "Possession" from her Fumbling record.

In addition to making a few well-timed Carmageddon jokes ("You came! You braved Carmageddon!") and making fun of herself for her penchant to write mournful love songs, McLachlan played predominantly slower songs, which seemed a wise call considering the sedation of the blue-haired box seat dwellers and the surprisingly un-rowdy bench sitters, as well as the opportunity to be backed by the orchestra.

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McLachlan, as shown on the Bowl's big screen (Lindsay William-Ross/LAist)
Leaving room for the orchestra to enrich the music worked exceptionally well for songs like her opener, "Building a Mystery," when in those more beat-driven denoument moments the strings shone. Particularly stunning was "Sweet Surrender," which is normally played with a more pop-rock beat; here she slowed it down, explaining it was how it was done in demo. The orchestral arrangement and the beautiful tones of her backup singers, Butterfly Boucher and Melissa McClelland--both gifted musicians in their own right--elevated this sometimes forgettable song into something positively haunting.The only disappointments of the evening came from the audience, not McLachlan et al, because they seemed to be having a different kind of concert going experience--perhaps these are the Friday night subscription ticket holders who drink in the cool summer nights to the sounds of John Williams' compositions, and may enjoy McLachlan every now and then flipping the radio dial. Hardly a soul stirred during "Possession," which is usually a powerful crowd pleaser, and done at the Bowl with the orchestra in a sublime and rousing fashion.

The audience cheered, as expected, for the encore opener, "Angel," which, if I've said it once, I'll say it a thousand times, may be used to urge you to help stray animals, but is, in fact, about the isolation of heroin addiction. However--and here is the "first" for me I hinted at above--for the show closer, "Ice Cream," the crowd committed a major fail. McLachlan, relying in live performance on the devotion of her fans, did what she always does: Asks the crowd to "fill in" the second chorus of the uncharacteristically celebratory and upbeat sweet song. Last night, a crowd not quite to its approximately 17,000 capacity, but robust none the less, barely emitted a peep. Usually McLachlan laughs appreciatively after the crowd chorus, while from the big Bowl stage this time, she just kept singing.

McLachlan and her band, with the accompaniment of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, play a second show tonight. If last night was any indication of tonight's crowd, some seats may still be available. If you are a McLachlan fan, hit up the Bowl box office, then grab a shuttle or the Red Line (it's free this weekend!), put together a picnic, and be the audience McLachlan and this really great evening of music deserves.