The Night A Fight Broke Out At The Sarah McLachlan Concert


Due to the nature of my IRL job in health care, I regularly interact with teenagers – most of whom lead me to believe that they’re experiencing a reality to which I cannot possibly relate. Yet, even in 2024, one thing appears to remain true as it was 30 years prior, when I was just barely a teen: most teenagers have no real concept of age. In the past several months, I’ve been estimated to be anywhere between 24 and 55 years old.

It’s not their fault; the profound physical and emotional growth that occurs within the span of even a few months means that an 11th grader might seem like an alien to someone in 8th grade. And once you get past that immediate peer group, there’s this undifferentiated block of human beings that are simply “adults.” Teachers or dentists or family friends or even celebrities and athletes might be 26 or 35 or 43, but because they have some degree of authority, in reality they’re “adults” and therefore “old.” They might appear to be younger or older olds, but still – old.

I say all this to preface the dull fact that Sarah McLachlan was 26 when she released Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, currently being celebrated with a robust 30-year anniversary tour. To put things into perspective, here’s a list of musicians who are 26 years old right now: Faye Webster, Sexyy Red, Jack Harlow, FINNEAS. She was born in 1968, a year after Scott Weiland, Kurt Cobain, and Billy Corgan, the artists who were largely responsible for shaping my worldview as a 14-year-old boy while Fumbling climbed the charts – one that required music to give form to the confusion, inarticulate anger, bafflement towards the opposite sex and particularly in the case of Smashing Pumpkins, lurking belief that everyone had a sinister plot to prevent me from my destiny. It’s actually somewhat miraculous that “Possession” and “Good Enough” managed to pierce through that thicket of adolescent angst.

While I lacked the language to explain things in critical terms at the time, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy didn’t quite scan as “alternative” despite the fact that it was being played on the alternative radio station – the guitars weren’t loud and, compared to similarly positioned female artists like Bjork or Tori Amos, her voice was conventionally beautiful. Nonetheless, it felt slicker and more seductive than the more overtly “adult” music that jockeyed for position against Nirvana and Snoop Dogg on MTV, like Richard Marx or Eric Clapton or Boyz II Men. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy might’ve been younger adult music, but adult all the same.

Fortunately, radio executives had a name for that sort of thing: “Hot Adult Contemporary,” or, oxymoronically, “Hot AC.” The midpoint between Top 40 pop and straight-up “Adult Contemporary,” this format included the likes of Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp (especially his cover of “Wild Night” with Meshell Ndegeocello), Melissa Etheredge, and Seal in 1994. By the time Surfacing emerged in 1997, there was a more accurate and more attractive name for what Sarah McLachlan was doing: “Adult Alternative Airplay.”

The first AAA chart was published by Billboard in 1996 and topped by “The World I Know,” a Collective Soul power ballad that would be used to sell trucks 15 years later. Surfacing’s opening track “Building A Mystery” would hold that same spot for ten weeks throughout the next year. Thus began Sarah McLachlan’s ascent from semi-stardom to the sort of strange ubiquity that comes when your album sells 16 million copies worldwide without making you a celebrity – in 2001, “Building A Mystery” was the first song played publicly on an iPod. Darryl McDaniels, aka “D.M.C.” of Run-DMC, claims that “Angel” pulled him from the brink of suicide. When I mentioned that I was going to a Sarah McLachlan concert to any of my friends between the ages of 35 and 45, they did not bring up “I Will Remember You” or “Ice Cream” or “Sweet Surrender”; they all seemed to know her from those monumentally sad ASPCA commercials. As the writer Jia Tolentino pointed out in 2022, the name Sarah McLachlan had a tendency to “reflexively summon an image constellation of tremendous adult-contemporary mauveness — shelter cats, hemp skirts, Lilith Fair corsetry.”

Mind you, this quote is pulled from Tolentino’s blurb for Fumbling Towards Ecstasy on Pitchfork’s revamped The 150 Best Albums of the 1990s list; one that was seemingly created for the sole purpose of upending a 40-something male’s ideas about what music from their youth was going to matter in the future. As if to drive that point home as strongly as possible, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy slotted at #119, directly ahead of Rage Against The Machine (as well as previously unimpeachable indie rock standards like Bee Thousand and The Lonesome Crowded West, which hung out in the 120s).

Even as someone who has stumped for Sarah McLachlan for most of my adult life, I’d love to tell you I was ahead of the curve on her reappraisal in ways that would bolster my reputation as a music critic. But nah, I’ll simply say that Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is one of the few albums that I only got once I listened to it while high.

I’m not sure what inspired me to pull out the copy of Fumbling that I burned during a shift at my college radio station in 2001, instead of the contemporary CDs I usually relied on during this time – Kid A, Elbow’s Asleep In The Back, White Ladder, things of that nature. But all of a sudden, when she sang “listen as the wind blows / across the great divide,” I am there, man. I’m staring out into the vast Canadian wilderness on the first day of spring after a brutal, paralyzing winter. It’s worth noting that I did not have access to Wikipedia at the time and was thus unaware that this is exactly how McLachlan wrote the album in 1993.

The ensuing years fleshed out not only the mythology of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, but also its context within a lineage of supernatural, yet earthy art-rock – the hyperclarity of the production led some critics to pull out Kate Bush comparisons, whereas McLachlan identified the pastoral, post-everything splendor of Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden as an explicit influence (and so that’s where they got the idea for the drum tone of “Good Enough” and the keyboards of “Ice”). Taking the longview, the more electronically-tinged cuts (“Possession” and “Plenty”) were in the same universe as One Dove or Saint Etienne, presaging an entire subgenre of trip-hoppy coffehouse comedown fare that gave us Dido and Beth Orton.

All of which puts Sarah McLachlan in an interesting space as she readies her first new album in 14 years. Her critical cachet has never been higher – starting an all-female festival in 1997 was very ahead of its time, but because it was the Lilith Fair (replete with all of its attendant sociocultural baggage), it’s still very much of its time. Headliners like Fiona Apple and Lucinda Williams have grown to be perhaps the most respected artists of their era, the influence of Sheryl Crow is plain as day throughout a wide swath of indie rock from Soccer Mommy to HAIM, even artists who’d be pegged as one-hit wonders like Meredith Brooks and Tracy Bonham emerge as touchstones for a lot of the aggressive, bubblegum grunge bands that pop up in my inbox every single day. McLachlan’s music always seemed a bit more otherworldly and mystical, which doesn’t leave a lot of modern analogues, even at a time when astrological charts and tarot readings have become mainstream enough to qualify as water cooler talk. A recent LA Times profile tried to connect Fumbling Towards Ecstasy to Florence And The Machine or Brandi Carlisle; these both feel like reaches and even still, I don’t know if those really would make Fumbling Towards Ecstasy seem cool in 2024.

Still, I’d say it’s the better “album experience” compared to Surfacing, the one that tends to have the moral and artistic high ground for its consistency and unique ambiance and lack of overexposure. Of course, Surfacing has the higher highs and the bigger hits and it’s the reason a Fumbling Towards Ecstasy tour date in San Diego is happening at the 10,000-capacity Rady Shell rather than, say, the more modest outdoor, oceanside venue where Natalie Merchant and Chris Isaak are doing dates this summer.

Hence, you don’t see a Sarah McLachlan show in 2024, it’s an experience. Nothing less is likely to be expected in a venue like this one, where ticket prices start in the triple digits; I was lucky enough to get press seats in a section where you might have to pony up $350 to see the Jewel/Melissa Etheridge co-headliner in a few weeks.

And for the most part, the experience lies in recognizing just how much impact Fumbling and Surfacing had on the exact demographic targeted by Hot AC – according to Westwood One, “adults age 18 – 49, with a tight target of women age 30 – 38.” Any conversation about Sarah McLachlan as a low-key influence in the 2020s is necessarily drowned out by the screams of people who have never cared less about that sort of thing and never will; perhaps the best illustration of McLachlan’s long-tail popularity is how “I Will Remember You” was the third song she played in a de facto Greatest Hits set preceding the full run through Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. That’s an encore song!

McLachlan knew her audience, peppering her stage banter with gratitude, nods to Pride Month and asides that acknowledged the drastic gender disparity in the crowd without possibly alienating anyone. Several songs were prefaced by McLachlan reminiscing about being a socially awkward kid growing up in Canada who was fully reliant on music as a source of self-worth (hence the donation of proceeds to the Sarah McLachlan School of Music). She’s the diamond-selling artist in thrall to her “fierce and fully independent” daughters, aged 17 and 22, who occasionally serve as her stylist; when the older of the two recommended costume changes throughout the show, McLachlan shrugged “I’m not Taylor Swift,” to great applause, but everyone understood her statement as a sign of respect – I’m not able to do what this person does, but I think it’s awesome that she can do that.

She recanted on decades of obfuscating the meaning behind “Adia” and explained how it was inspired by her dating, and eventually marrying, her best friend’s ex and the fallout that ensued; they eventually reconciled and divorced their respective husbands, understood by the crowd to be a happy ending. While introducing “Good Enough,” a heart-bursting tribute to the endurance of female friendship, McLachlan joked, “men, bless your boots, but you tend to come and go.”

McLachlan admitted that she’d blown her voice out numerous times during this tour and was taking steroids and happily let the crowd carry her through “Ice Cream,” a song that she was hesitant to put on Fumbling because of its seemingly frivolous premise (chocolate and ice cream are good, sex can occasionally be better).

Yet, even with all of these titanically good vibes, above all else, I’ll remember the fight that almost broke out. The woman sitting two chairs to my right was doing a kind of octopus-armed Stevie Nicks dance with a scarf while fully seated, the entire time – the sort of caricature that popped up any time Lilith Fair was played for laughs in the late ‘90s. She stood up to dance this way during “Good Enough,” and then immediately sat back down. By the time I had planned to use the bathroom (during the somewhat dated jazzbo-pop of “Circle”), I had noticed that one of the ushers was occupying the frighteningly small space between the faces of Stevie and the woman sitting in the row behind her – one that presumably paid several hundred dollars for a ticket for a show she was fucked tired of seeing through a pair constantly undulating arms.

As my Indiecast co-host Steven Hyden pointed out in this past week’s episode, the ambient threat of violence almost never hangs over any show where the frontperson is liable to implore the crowd to open up this fucking pit. It’s at shows like these, where one person’s choice to stand up could have a ripple effect that leads to real-time rage that you only typically see after a parking lot fender bender. It was an odd note during a show that was otherwise a tribute to the endurance of female kinship – between friends, between mother and daughter, between themselves and Fumbling Towards Ecstacy.