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k.d Lang performs on an open-air stage as part of the Luminato festival in downtown Toronto on Friday, June 17, (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)
k.d Lang performs on an open-air stage as part of the Luminato festival in downtown Toronto on Friday, June 17, (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

Music: Concert review

k.d. lang transforms at Luminato Add to ...

k.d. lang

  • Luminato Festival
  • David Pecaut Square in Toronto on Friday

"Instant Gravy." That was k.d. lang's amused response to calls from the audience for her biggest hit, which some fans, she said, have misheard as a pitch for no-fuss condiments.

She eventually did perform Constant Craving, and it wasn't pulled from a packet labelled, "Add water and stir." Lang and her new five-man band, the Siss Boom Bang, played a much darker and more urgent version of the song than the easy-rolling performance she recorded in 1992.

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Transformation was the unspoken theme of the evening, which was mostly devoted to songs from lang's recent album, Sing It Loud. It's her best original album in years, and as this show confirmed, the most difficult to categorize.

Perfect Word, for instance, began with an introduction on Spanish guitar (played by lang's new song-writing partner, Joe Pisapia), slid into a shadowy country groove and then exploded into the rocking-est episode of the whole concert. A Sleep With No Dreaming took her close to Roy Orbison territory, while the encore Sugar Buzz married a fat jangly rock-guitar duet (by Pisapia and Joshua Grange) to a tune that revelled in lang's predilection for crooner-type melodies, even while it shaded toward soul music. This big sexy number expanded beautifully in live performance, and showed how many musical directions are available to lang these days - even within a single song.

She did several covers, including two songs that may count, informally at least, as the greatest hits of her recent career: Neil Young's Helpless, done with a tasty dollop of pedal steel, and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Chris Isaak's Western Stars has been in her tour book before, and she gave it a wonderfully sultry feeling, even if there was a bit too much cloud for the stars to light up the sky, as the lyrics would have it.

The show's most intriguing cover, which is included on the new disc, was lang's version of Heaven, by "one of the great country bands of all times" - Talking Heads. She made a subtle case for her country take on this mind-expanding number, which somehow gains in wisdom by being sung by her.

At 49, lang's powerful voice remains a natural wonder, capable of changing colour and density, quickly and easily. She sang some high phrases (for example, in A Sleep With No Dreaming) in a clear light head-voice, going for others with a chestier type of production, bridging through those technical means the very different requirements of crooning and rock or country singing. Her band (whose other members are bassist Lex Price, drummer Fred Eltringham and keyboardist Daniel Clarke), a real shape-shifting ensemble, was extremely tight.

Lang cut an entertaining figure on the stage, dancing and moving in ways that communicated fun and curiosity. Her buttoned-up jacket was cut in a country style, but aside from a white shirt and red kerchief, she was in black from head to toe, and in that sense looked very urban. Even in appearance, she fused different things, which seems to be a very good strategy for her right now.

k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang play the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 25, the Montreal Jazz Festival on June 27, the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 8, the Calgary Folk Music Festival on July 23, the Kelowna Community Theatre on July 24, the Regina Folk Festival on Aug. 6 and the Edmonton Folk Festival on Aug. 7.

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