Sarah Slean @ The Rio Theatre – March 6th 2013

sarah slean

What a treat this show was. It was my first time at Vancouver’s Rio Theatre and from my spot in the first row of the mezzanine I had a good vantage point of the stage, albeit, it was a tiring one for my back because in order to see over the uncomfortably high concrete wall, I had to sit ramrod straight. But many times, it was just as well to sit back and let the music wash over me.

I arrived in time to see Sarah Slean come on stage. Due to a previous commitment, I was unable to make Ian Kelly’s set (more on him later), and the musicians were finishing up their tuning when I found my seat. There is Sarah’s grand piano on stage right and centre stage by my count are 3 cellos, 2 violas, 6 violins, 1 contrabass, as well as a percussionist and a keyboard player (who also plays the piano and sings harmony) of towards stage left. The lights went down and I could hear the first shushers. Really? I was at the bleedin’ SYMPHONY last weekend and I didn’t hear a single “shush”!

Sarah Slean introduces her songs not necessarily by title, more by the story that inspired it or where she felt it came from. The first song “Cosmic Ballet” was described as being the “pulse of the universe”. With the song the sweeping sounds of the string section set the tone and Sarah’s sweeping vocals are not in competition with them. And that is how the evening continued. I’ve always enjoyed Sarah’s voice. She oscillates between sounding like a smoky jazz singer (but in a ‘good girl’ way, not a “whatcha doing later, I could be persuaded” way) and a chanteuse in the French tradition (not Celine Dion, think vibrato à la Edith Piaf). Her vocal strength doesn’t necessarily lie in her range (although she’s got that too), but more in the way she can flesh out notes and make them seem multidimensional.

Even after all these years, Sarah’s still a little impish, a little pixie-like, but more settled. She doesn’t talk much per se – she whispers conspiratorially to her audience. She’s one of those people who has really grown-up thoughts but has a Peter Pan air about her – still quirky and still perky. The last time I saw Sarah Slean, it was at the Rivoli (the Riv) in Toronto at least 11 years ago. Sarah had been given a laryngitis diagnosis but she didn’t cancel the show – friends called singers and musicians in the community who in turn each learned one of her songs pretty much overnight. Armed with a small whiteboard, magic marker and her piano, she called the evening the “Cute Mute” night, and she accompanied each singer on the piano. It was a unique night – the music was great and it was grounded in community spirit and support.

More than a decade later, Sarah still carries a good sense of community with her. A charity she supports, Environmental Defence, had a small table set up in the foyer of the theatre – if a patron signed up to be a monthly donor, they received her latest release, the double-CD Land & Sea as a thank you from Sarah (not from her personally, the gentleman at the table had a supply of the CDs). That’s putting your money where your mouth is. Also, the orchestra: the touring orchestra was violin, viola, cello, contrabass, concertmaster – every other string player was a local Vancouver musician. Respect.


“Napoleon” was introduced as a visit to his grave and his mummified heart stirring back to life – the song has a great Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens feel to it. Visually, the silver screen behind Sarah and orchestra had beach and ocean scenes on them – they didn’t move fast, they would last a song or more, for other songs nature-inspired animation was super-imposed on top.

For “The Devil & the Dove” there was a yellowish-orange plant on which leaf tendrils changed into blossoming butterflies.

For “Lucky Me” and “California”, Karen, the keyboard player moved over to the piano while Sarah ‘merely’ sang – “California”’s climax gave me chills: the strings in full bow, the tight harmonies of Karen with Sarah, and the honest emotion coming through on the song. Just gorgeous.

“Parasol” was introduced as “circus music”.

For “The Rose”, she related how this song came about a good 20 years after she first understood mortality: of a pet, of family down the road, her own; and how the present is one of “spectacular richness”.

Chuckles from the local strings when she whispered that “classical musicians were so intimidating”. But in the dressing room, she had learned that one of them had a tattoo. She giggled then, saying she found it hot. You had to be there (why weren’t you?). She then explained how she admired TS Eliot’s works (as I do too) and that they were very sad/reflective and that he had “needed a girlfriend”. There were falling drops super-imposed against the beach scene on the screen for the actual song.

“We’ll Meet Again” was actually a song of Ian Kelly’s and Sarah had him come on stage to sing it. That was the first chance I had to hear his music and his voice – it’s got a warm and soft tone to it – complimentary sound to his honey-coloured guitar, reminded me a bit of Gordie Sampson.

For the next song, “Life”, Ian stayed to provide guitar back-up, but left a bit awkwardly while Sarah was thanking her orchestra again.

“Sounds of Water” had strings to the max – it was great, lively, not symphonically boring (it’s instrumental solos I generally find boring, this was a string orchestra used to its potential), they added depth and aural interest highlighting different aspects of the music. It was the big finale, I could tell. Well, until the encores.

I adore the first song of the encore “The Right Words” – it could be someone’s “Rainbow Connection” or “Someone’s Waiting for You” and it was very personal to Sarah – sent by the universe just when she needed it. Truly beautiful song – absolute poetry set to music.

“Pilgrim” introduced as spicy tango. At its conclusion the entire house stood up for a standing ovation (a good 360 people, and then some).

For the second encore, her touring musicians accompanied her with their voices during the song’s chorus. Nothing too challenging (Sarah did mention they may have been mildly terrified that singing was going to be a requirement for the set of gigs, but by the last show, it looked like that had become less traumatic).

Full setlist:
Cosmic Ballet
Everything by the Gallon
Beauty Lives
The Devil & the Dove
Lucky Me
The Rose
The One True Love
You’re Not Alone
We’ll Meet Again
Sounds of Water

The Right Words

2nd Encore
Attention Archers

With stories and songs, Sarah Slean and her orchestra brought a great 75 minute show. The two-song encore was under 10 minutes. Second encore was about 5 minutes or so. The lights went up again at 20 after 10. This was the last show of the tour – Sarah said that after having a string orchestra with her, how was she going to get used to touring with a band again? I think as long as she keeps on making music, the audience knows it’s going to get one aural treat after another.

The balcony was the perfect place to get the full acoustics of the show. I spoke with a couple afterwards and they were towards the middle of the ground floor and they only heard music from the house right speaker. They had issues with how the sound was mixed (Sarah apparently sounding a bit shrill to their ears and they mentioned sibilants) – I had none of that where I was, I had backache instead, but what a show to have received it at. No regrets.

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