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McLachlan, Vega, Cole Go Casual

August 05, 1996|STEVE HOCHMAN

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest.

"I never get to see people play," Sarah McLachlan said from the Starlight Amphitheatre stage in Burbank on Friday, explaining why she recruited Suzanne Vega and Paula Cole to join her on a quickie, two-date tour.

So with no more calculation, promotional hype or even new albums to promote (though Vega premiered songs from an album due next month), the three women each gave sets powered by an obvious love of performing.

Vancouver-based McLachlan, who has quietly built a sizable, rabid following, took particular advantage of the casual format. Abandoning the lush arrangements of her albums for just drummer Ashwin Sood, bassist Brian Minato and her own piano or guitar, McLachlan left no doubt about her triple-threat talents as a dynamic vocalist, emotive writer and formidable instrumentalist.

In the stripped-down setting, she both reached back to her adventurous '70s singer-songwriter influences (underscored by a passionate version of Joni Mitchell's "Blue") and pointed in promising new directions by strapping on an electric guitar for a couple of songs, giving her fluidly poetic, sensual style a grabbing edge. The setting also brought her naturally winning personality to the fore.

Vega, too, was a winning presence, as she introduced not only her upcoming album but herself in the role of a new mom, drolly spinning anecdotes about her daughter. While the icy detachment of her old favorites (including "Luka" and the a cappella "Tom's Diner") has held up quite well, the new material--with rich electronic tapestries crafted by her husband, keyboardist Mitchell Froom--was especially intriguing for its expanded stylistic and emotional range.

Sound problems plagued the opening set by Cole, a former Peter Gabriel band member whose 1994 album "Harbinger" was a promising debut. But she sabotaged herself with over-affected vocal mannerisms that obscured her talents.

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