Sarah Slean's latest opus, a double-LP exploration of orchestral pop named Land & Sea, may have proved the singer-songwriter to be a talented, visionary artist, but seeing her live proves her to be nothing other than a Canadian national treasure.
Alone at her piano, the Pickering, ON musician commanded the attention of the near-capacity Vancouver crowd like few performers can, even when she was just noodling on the keyboard while stringing pearls of wisdom and fleshing out lush images and stories paraphrased from her past between songs. Her coy facial expressions punctuate her speech with winks, nods, gasps and smiles, each eliciting audience responses. She could have outdone Zach Galifianakis if she had tossed some random expletives into her story about a 27-year-old in Paris receiving an unexpected but not unwelcome kiss during a moment of quiet awe and gratitude.
Coming after her Parisian set-up, the romantic "My Eyes & Your Eyes" practically melted concrete, allowing Slean's vocals to soar over a minimal piano tune. Slean has a remarkable voice, capable of blistering, sonorous tones yet showing maturity in her range and subtlety of execution, with a silver lining of tasteful employed vibrato. Combined with her skills as an orator and extroverted personality, she is a natural entertainer in a classic, vaudevillian sense.
Slean's band, which joined her after a few songs, was no posse of slouches either. Her guitarist was a total ham, exaggerating the use of his whammy bar and pushing every note through his entire body as if he was Santana at Woodstock, even though he was in the back corner of the stage. At one point, he got so into it, he looked as if he might flip his guitar over his head, into the front row, and walk away, and no one would have been surprised.
The band's presence also let Slean step away from the piano for a couple numbers, which allowed even more of her character to show, as well as the hole in her tights that she triumphantly pointed out. Her performance of "Society Song" brought to mind fine cabaret, slinking around centrestage devil-may-care, hugged by her tasteful purple dress and spurring the crowd into a clapping hootenanny.
Even without the 21-piece orchestra used on Land & Sea, "New Pair of Eyes" was unutterably dynamic, flowing and moving. Her arrangements are flawless, her lyrics insightful, her performance sparkling, and her personality equally saucy and endearing, all of which left the theatre buzzing with deeper admiration as they filtered out into the street.