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Singing Across Boundaries 

by Leah Sottile, Mike Corrigan and Joel Smith


I'm sure Sarah McLachlan is usually confronted with passion, tenderness, even the sorrow of her listeners. But my first encounter with Sarah McLachlan was shock -- as in, I was shocked to come across her when I did. On a regular afternoon paw-through of my older brother's CD collection -- at that time mostly comprised of My Bloody Valentine, Dead Can Dance and Bauhaus records -- I came across McLachlan's delicately smiling face somewhere between Lush and Ministry. It didn't fit. Here was an entire music collection that stood solidly on the very foundations of gothic culture, and here this woman had to infiltrate it. Who was this woman, and how the hell did she get here?


That's when I first discovered Sarah McLachlan, her brassy, honest lyrics and a voice that could crumble walls. Her 1994 Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, tucked in my brother's stereo, changed so much for me -- what a music collection could be, how one singer could throw it all off, how musical tastes and predispositions could be cast aside by a lone soprano voice.


McLachlan has been in the business of delicately changing minds since the beginning of her singing career -- a position she's willingly placed herself in. After gaining considerable attention from 1988's Touch and 1991's Solace, McLachlan took off for Cambodia and Thailand to work on World Vision, a documentary about child prostitution and poverty in the region. Life, for McLachlan, was clearly not all about her music and fame, but about using that fame to make a difference.


The '90s brought her millions of record sales, three Grammy awards and the three-year success of her own Lilith Fair. Lilith brought awareness of female issues to nearly two million concertgoers and exhibited the talent of female artists like the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Merchant, Jewel, Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu and, of course, McLachlan.


And through it all, listeners never once heard her spit bold-just-to-be-bold lyrics like Ani Difranco or Paula Cole, and never once saw McLachlan try to convince young girls to ditch their razors and their men. While she was criticized for being either too feminist or not nearly feminist enough, McLachlan and her plainly human lyrics were propped at the helm of the feminist ship, a position that shocked even her. Three years of Lilith put more than $7 million toward charity and saw McLachlan rise into the limelight. Her 1997 Surfacing found itself in the collections of anyone with a Discman. It was music that spoke to everyone.


Singing about the angels that touched her life, the relationships she'd let trample her, the people she had failed, McLachlan is, plainly, just another singer/songwriter. She's a beautiful woman who can do a fine number on a guitar, and can play more than just boogie-woogie on the piano. But it's hardly all that simple. McLachlan, who you could say is just any one of those things, appeals to nearly everyone's ears. She coyly slips her way into any record collection, singing lyrics that are just catchy enough, just genuine enough to suck in any diehard metal head or new age hippie. Her music is just that, music. And that's all it's meant to be. She's one of those few artists who can break an indie rock snob like me, and even soften a stone-set Goth.


Maybe I should blame it on McLachlan for turning my brother into a hippie.





Freedom of Choice -- Alternatives. They're what keep this lumbering beast known as rock alive and inching forward just fast enough for it to avoid stagnating in its own juices. Though there's money to be made in refining -- not to mention rehashing -- standard methods and practices, it's those who care enough about rock to make those stabs into the darkness -- who advance the cause and help to maintain rock as a viable and exciting form of self-expression. They keep looking into the crevices for niches to fill.


Thursday night, April 14, is all about alternatives, as five lean and hungry young bands -- Straylight Run, Minus the Bear, the Honorary Title, Gratitude and Spitalfield -- take the stage at Fat Tuesday's as part of the nationwide Alternative Press/Van's Tour. Here's why: The bands involved all exist (at least for now) on the rock fringe. Co-sponsor Alternative Press magazine has spent the last 20 years dutifully covering that rock nether region known as "the underground." And Fat Tuesday's Concert Hall is fast solidifying its local reputation as a most worthy mid-sized rock venue, one that neatly fills the void that exists between the bars and big houses like the Big Easy.


This alt-rock tour's headliner, Straylight Run, was conceived in the spring of 2003 by singer/songwriter/guitarist John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper, both former members of pop-punk band, Taking Back Sunday. Drummer Will Noon and Nolan's sister, Michelle (on piano and guitar) eventually completed the quartet. The melodic Long Island-based band has slowly been generating buzz the old-fashioned way -- by touring like mad -- and the not-so-old-fashioned way -- by landing their goofy mugs on MTV's Advance Warning, a showcase of emerging rock talent.


Straylight Run's music is urgent and forthright, but that's where the similarities with Taking Back Sunday start to drop off. Rather than the well-worn structures that typified Nolan and Cooper's previous work, Straylight Run's piano and guitar-based pop arrangements are more esoteric and spare, fleshed out with samples, rhythm loops and electronic atmospherics.


Armed with a cache of six demos, the group recently embarked on a trio of tours that spun them into increasingly larger spheres of exposure -- regional, national, international. Back home, the band landed in the pages of AP before entering the studio in February to record a self-titled debut album for Victory Records (home of Taking Back Sunday's back catalog and opening band, Spitalfield). It's an 11-song collection featuring the single "Existentialism on Prom Night." -- Mike Corrigan





The AP-Vans Tour with Straylight Run, Minus the Bear, the Honorary Title, Gratitude and Spitalfield is at Fat Tuesday's Concert Hall on Thursday, April 14, at 8 pm. All ages; full bar for 21 and older. Tickets: $13.50. Call 325-SEAT.





Savin' Cajun -- The Brian Jonestown Massacre is doing its best to conjure up the sounds of the '60s-era Rolling Stones. The spacey synths and faux-British vocals of the Killers recall young hipsters' '80s school days. It's like these guys think that rock 'n' roll is going to go out of style, that they have to save those old sounds from extinction.


That's cute.


Enter Michael Doucet, a Cajun kid from Scott, La. Doucet played the trumpet in high school and the guitar in a New Orleans-influenced folk-rock band in the late 1960s. But in the early 1970s, he picked up the fiddle and caught on to something few of his generation had realized, let alone begun to understand. Cajun culture was dying.


This was, mind you, before the days when the word "Cajun" became chic -- a spice for your gumbo, the exotic music of the week. In the assimilationist days of the Cold War, Cajun culture, like most regional culture and identity, was no point of pride; it was a stumbling block to the acceptance of mainstream America. Few outside Louisiana knew or cared for the Cajuns; inside Louisiana, especially in the southern part of the state, speaking local French dialects had been banned in public schools for more than four decades. The language was withering; the music fared no better.


Doucet understood that many of the progenitors of Cajun music still alive -- Varise Connor, Dennis McGee, Freeman Fontenot -- were all but forgotten and had long since given up on music. He aimed to dig up that old music, that old tradition, air it out to new audiences, revitalize it and breathe new life into it.


He started in 1973 with the formation of Beausoleil, a trio of fiddle, mandolin and accordion, three of Cajun music's most important instruments. After a brief tour in France, where he got the impression that the French knew more about Cajun culture than even he did, he returned to Louisana in search of the roots of the music.


Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, he tracked down those old musicians who first recorded Cajun music, some of whom hadn't heard their 78s in decades. With another grant, he worked to bring French music to the school systems.


In 1976, Doucet got serious about Beausoleil, which, appropriately enough, hits the Big Easy on Wednesday night. Adding kid brother and guitar whiz David to the lineup, and Billy Ware on percussion, the group recorded its first album, BeauSoleil La Nuit. Thirty years and nearly 30 albums later, the group has become synonymous with -- and symbolic of -- Cajun music and culture, at last embraced as a vibrant American enclave. Doucet and his group have brought Louisiana country life to the American mainstream with a plethora of recordings, tireless international tours and frequent stints on programs like Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion.


And yet they don't sound crusty. Though rooted in traditional Cajun sounds the group -- now comprised of the Doucet brothers on fiddle and guitar (respectively), Tommy Alesi on drums, Billy Ware on percussion, Jimmy Breaux on accordion and Al Tharp on a whole host of other folk instruments -- has long garnered praise for its foot-stomping, highly danceable gumbo of Cajun and zydeco, jazz, Latin, swing, Caribbean, Hawaiian and even European Medieval music.


Those nouveau hipsters can yearn all they want for the good old days of Mick Jagger and Morrisey, but they haven't helped resurrect a dying culture. Beausoleil makes the melodies of generations gone by sound like they sprang up from tomorrow morning. And they're sure to get your feet tapping, too. -- JOEL SMITH





Beausoleil plays at the Big Easy on Wednesday, April 20, at 8 pm. Tickets: $13.50. Call 325-SEAT.





Publication date: 04/14/05
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