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Sarah McLachlan announces a new tour, puts Lilith behind her

September 7, 2010 |  3:40 pm

When I visited Vancouver, Canada, in early June to talk to Sarah McLachlan about her new album and the Lilith Tour, I found the singer-songwriter hard at work to keep her mood positive. Already forced to respond to rumors of serious problems with the female-oriented traveling festival she'd helped found and was now reviving, McLachlan was warm and feisty, but also a bit on edge.

The mood changed when she entered a rehearsal studio to lead her outstanding band through some numbers from that fine, fresh release, "Laws of Illusion." Leading the way from behind her keyboard, McLachlan was authoritative, fully engaged, and obviously happy.

Now that McLachlan has survived the difficult summer of Lilith's downfall -- cancellations and poor sales turned it into a sad emblem of the conventional music industry's continuing decline -- it seems that she's getting back to her sweet spot. McLachlan has announced a fall tour focusing on the South and Midwest, regions affected by the Lilith cancellations. If these shows go well, it's possible that McLachlan will announce more, perhaps on the West Coast.

"Sarah and Friends" seems structured to give McLachlan -- and her fans -- what the controversy over Lilith's underperformance may have taken away. Each show will feature the star sitting in with her as-yet unannounced openers, and later taking questions from the audience during an expanded headlining set. It's all about community, the quality McLachlan has said is her prime motivator when playing live.

"Whether it's 10 people or 20,000 people, there's nothing else like it," she told me about performing live. "That's when I feel most grounded in my purpose. This is why I'm here." She added that she loves to learn about a particular song's meaning to a fan, something the interactive portion of her new tour can highlight.

"It’s kind of amazing validation," she said. "I don’t feel weird about it at all.... When somebody, a stranger, comes up to me and says, '"Angel," that song, my brother died, and that song helped me' -- it’s a huge compliment."

Beyond such satisfying moments with her fans, McLachlan's new tour gives her a chance to highlight that band, which includes, among others,  Luke Doucet on guitar, Butterfly Boucher on bass and Melissa McClelland on backing vocals and guitar. She talked about them with relish during our interview.

Right now in rehearsals I’m facing everybody, because we’re working on stuff, and I like to see what everybody’s doing," she said in June. "I look up there at Melissa and Butter and I think, man, that’s a hot back line!"

McLachlan had grown accustomed to playing solo while touring only intermittently during the first years of her two daughters' lives, but she's an excellent bandleader and likes to let her more raucous side show, sometimes, when playing live.

"As a person, I’m pretty full on," she said. "I like Metallica! I listen to a lot of ambient music too, but there’s a place for [hard rock]. I have a lot of aggression in me. And there’s nothing like snapping on an electric guitar and just grinding into it. It’s such a sexual female and such an aggressive powerful feeling too. Piano is female, guitar is male, and I’ve got a lot of male in me. I love to embrace it."

There's no word yet on whether McLachlan will be jamming on some thrash metal during these fall dates. But they do allow for her to refocus on what really matters to any musician: the music, and the fans whom she's served over the past decade plus.

When we spoke, McLachlan credited her manager (and Lilith's co-founder) Terry McBride with teaching her the power of the road. "He said, 'You play live, that’s your strength,'" she said. "You get fans every time you go back to a city, you get twice as many people coming. Because you sing, and you sing to them, and there’s this thing that happens when you do. So you gotta focus on that. You gotta work your butt off and stay out there."

It seems that no matter what industry trend analysts and naysayers might think, McLachlan is finding herself again by taking that time-honored advice.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Sarah McLachlan in rehearsal in Vancouver in June 2010. Credit: Jeff Vinnick / For The Times.