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Generally Recognized As True: Sarah Slean concert review | Danforth Music Hall | Friday, May 23, 2008

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sarah Slean concert review | Danforth Music Hall | Friday, May 23, 2008

I know two piano-playing people named Sarah, and last Friday I went to see the one not named after a bar of shaving soap -- Sarah Slean -- perform in concert at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto.

I call what follows a "review", but it's really just a musing on what I remember most vividly about the concert.

First of all, getting to the concert from Georgetown is enough of an event in itself. It was work-from-home day for me, and the evening trips from here to Toronto are only offered by bus at that time of day. It would have been roughly 1 1/2 hours to get there, and another 1 1/2 hours to get back. So, instead, I drove down to the Oakville station, caught the train there, and stayed over at Mum and Dad's when I got back. Good choice!

The concert hall itself was easy to get to -- a couple of subway transfers and a couple of minutes walking and I was there. I'd never been to the Music Hall before, but it was a pretty typical concert hall and I don't remember much about it. The acoustics were reasonable for its size.

The opening act was decent. What first appeared to me to be 007 performing with Indiana Jones eventually revealed itself after a few anonymous songs to be a guy named Royal Wood performing with Indiana Jones (I never caught the other one's real name).

Royal Wood could mean many things to me:

  • the name of a forest
  • a bragging line
  • a brand of charcoal

But short of describing a two-legged caterpillar, the last thing I'd have guessed it to describe would have been a talented Canadian performer. There were a number of styles demonstrated -- but mostly depressing songs, as he alluded to himself -- and he managed to create a sound that could well be popular while avoiding being rote. People hate to be classified (and I'm no expert in his genre of music), but as a general description I'd put him in the Barry Manilow / Michael Bublé category. He did a strange rendition of the Oompa Loompa song, presumably from Willy Wonka (I had never heard it before) -- and a more refined and accessible version of the jazzy version done by Harry Connick Jr.

So, Mr. Wood played for about 45 minutes and then there was a far-too-long 20 minute break before Ms. Slean was to take stage.

At this point, I was fully prepared to compare her to Tori Amos, someone that I've seen twice in concert and who is, at least to my someone of my generation, the originator of the girl-and-piano format.

I'd never seen Sarah Slean in concert before. I'm unsure of how "big" she is as a performer. The tickets were cheap and the concert hall was not huge, and with the new style of Internet marketing around musicians regardless of their fame, it's sometimes hard to tell how popular someone really is. The concert hall looked reasonably populated and the audience was enthusiastic (and most clearly knew who she was -- it wasn't a bunch of season ticket holders sampling the artsy buffet). But when Tori Amos packs a much larger hall with tickets 3 times the price and generates far more anticipation (everyone is there for a reason) yet sells less than 200,000 copies of an album, you have to wonder. I am still wondering.

So, I'll get the comparison with Tori Amos out of the way:

  • Sarah is not a "Tori clone". She's an artist in her own right and has produced her own identity. This is not Vanessa Carlton.
  • Tori is a far more adventurous piano player and does far more with the instrument. She also plays a higher quality piano!
  • Sarah seems to have more appreciation for the instrumentation beyond the piano, whereas Tori communicates primarily through the piano.
  • Tori is usually more over-the-top and spills outside of the container once in awhile, while Sarah is quite channeled.

I first heard Sarah Slean's music about 10 years ago, but for quite awhile she played small venues, clubs and festival-type things where she was either the focus of a small, limited audience or not the focus of a larger audience. So, when I saw that she was going to be at the Music Hall a few months ago, it seemed like something that I shouldn't miss.

I recognized most of the songs played, although I couldn't put a title to very many of them. I haven't dissected her albums all that much, though I've bought all of them. Honestly, I don't like all of her work, but there are some very good songs in her catalogue and some sounded better in concert than I remember them sounding on the album. My favourite stuff is probably her earlier work -- things like Twin Moon and Universe -- back when the instrumentation was not quite so elaborate. But, maybe that's the Tori bias poking through. She didn't play much of the earlier stuff in the concert, but I enjoyed it anyway.

So, maybe my review is not that good. I can't really name the songs that I found most interesting. There was a strong power ballad type of song with the full band that I liked. I would have liked a bit more solo.

As far as I can remember, she was on stage with a small grand piano, had a string quartet, a drummer, a double bass player and a guitar player. Royal Wood came back for one or two songs to play a second guitar.

In contrast, for awhile, Tori's backing band consisted of just a bass guitar player and a drummer. She added a guitar player that mostly played effects and accents with the most recent tour. But Tori's impressive ability to squeeze a great song out of any number of combinations -- solo, limited band, full band makes almost anything work.

There were two encores of a couple of songs each. The crowd was very interested -- and genuinely interested -- in having her come back.

She intertwined the songs with some theatrics and had quite a lot of dialog with the audience compared the level of dialog in other concerts I've seen. Ms. Slean has a strong stage presence. I think the hair has a lot to do with it -- and it's not unusual hair -- but the full-bodied hair compared to what she had earlier gives her much of a presence than she'd otherwise have. She'd look a lot smaller without it.

So, it was an enjoyable concert. I would probably not make such a long trip again for a concert like this, but I'm glad that I got to see a Sarah Slean show. If she held another concert closer to home, I'd probably go to see another one.

Here's a video of Sarah Slean live, and this was characteristic of the concert I saw:

But here's Tori doing one of the many variations of one of her earlier songs. There was nothing with the depth and clarity of this in the concert. It's quite a contrast:

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