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Ode Canada: Lang draws inspiration from above

August 02, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

The Hollywood Bowl's concert offering Friday was billed as "An Evening With k.d. lang and the Los Angeles Philharmonic," but it was hardly a full partnership.

In fact, it was amusing during the 75-minute performance to imagine the orchestra staff handing out Game Boy videos to conductor Charles Floyd and the musicians so they would have something to do with their time onstage.

The Philharmonic's passive role was unfortunate because lang, whose style has ranged over the years from cowgirl to chanteuse, could have used help in retooling such once enticing but now fairly tired set pieces as "Crying," "Constant Craving" and "Miss Chatelaine."

It's a good thing the stylish singer had her native Canada -- and our national election -- on her mind or the evening might have been a total rerun.

As the title of her new album suggests, lang wants to remind us that there's room for Canadian tunes in the Great American Songbook.

Thus, "Hymns of the 49th Parallel" features interpretations of tunes from such fellow countrywomen (and countrymen) as Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.

She included five of the album's songs, including her own "Simple" (co-written by Danny Piltch), in the set, and they formed the emotional center of the evening.

As for the election, it may have been a good thing Friday's show wasn't at the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas, where Linda Ronstadt a week earlier was jeered for praising filmmaker Michael Moore.

Just before singing the first of the tunes from the album, lang, whose outspokenness on social and cultural issues has led to controversy from time to time, grinned mischievously as she gazed deliberately at the audience.

"If the election doesn't happen to turn out the way you want it to

There was scattered applause and one angry retort, which she repeated in case anyone missed it, "He said, 'Shut up and sing!' "

To make her presidential preferences clear, she employed the "Hope Is on the Way" slogan that was prominently employed during last week's Democratic convention.

Alas, lang's treatments of the Canadian music wasn't as lively.

She is one of those pop singers equipped with an extraordinarily powerful voice as well as strong control and command. When she turns that vocal cannon on a tune as full-bodied and dramatic as the old Roy Orbison hit "Crying," she can blow you away.

But lang doesn't always capture nuance or subtleties of gentler tunes, such as Young's "Helpless," which she sang without much impact Friday. Like so many power-equipped singers, she sometimes seems to be reaching for notes rather than for feeling.

By showcasing "Helpless" on the new album, lang may well remind us that it is a marvelous tune, but you have to turn to Young's own recording to really understand why.

Because Jane Siberry's music isn't nearly as known as Young's, many Friday were probably hearing her "The Valley" and "Love Is Everything" for the first time. If so, it's hard to imagine being moved enough to check out Siberry's versions. Both tunes felt like obvious, one-dimensional anthems.

By contrast, lang's interpretation of Cohen's brilliant "Hallelujah" was her moment of triumph in the show. The 1988 song, about searching for comfort and salvation in a broken world, may eventually rival "Bird on a Wire" as Cohen's most enduring composition.

Oddly, Rufus Wainwright, the marvelous young singer-songwriter who opened the evening with his own 30-minute set, also sang "Hallelujah" as the encore, alone at the piano, and it too was absorbing.

If the orchestra didn't add much seasoning to either lang's music or Wainwright's, lang's own four-piece group did inject consistent color and imagination, especially her longtime pianist, Teddy Borowiecki.

But the most disarming touch was when steel guitarist Greg Leisz injected flashes of western swing and even the hula into the old pop tune "Kiss to Build a Dream On." Lang got so caught up in the spirit of the number that she couldn't resist trying out a few dance steps herself.

It was even more fun than a Game Boy.

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic for The Times, can be reached at robert.hilburn

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