Lindsey Stirling Fiddles with the System: Concert Review

Lindsey Stirling - P 2014
Chris Willman

Lindsey Stirling - P 2014

Her head-scratching success in pop marketplace is a welcome reprieve from the usual formula.

The men don’t know, but the violin-loving little girls and EDM-craving gamers and New Age middle-agers understand.

You don’t necessarily have to love Lindsey Stirling’s music to love the idea of Lindsey Stirling as a seemingly confounding success story in a pop market that could stand a lot more such head-scratchers.  When the violinist’s independently released, nearly all-instrumental album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in early May, it was almost as novel as a cat-tackles-dog video. Was her music classical, pop, fusion, New Age, or EDM? And didn’t bouncing around like a sprite in her YouTube videos (some of which have more than 90 million views) disqualify her from being taken seriously in any of those genres? The N.Y. Times even sat its pop and classical critics down together to try to figure out who or what Stirling is. The pop reviewer was “puzzled” in “wondering who it was for” and the classical guy was “mystified,” but both pundits could agree that they didn’t care for it, finally settling in on the idea that it might be “study music for nerdy teenage girls.”

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Anecdotal evidence among those who know actual nerdy teenage girls confirms that the Times was on to something with that demographic stab in the dark. And yet when Stirling performed for a full house Thursday night at Club Nokia, the audience would have surely thrown the NYT critics back to square one by being as diverse and indefinable as any you’d see at a pop show. Yes, there was a teenaged boy pressed against the front barricade who kept yelling that “I’ve got a test tomorrow!” when Stirling’s set time was delayed. But the crowd was less heavy on teens than ethnically diverse, 20-to-35-year-old date-night couples. There were a lot of solo males, which may explain the loud cheer that went up when Stirling said she always likes to “do a number for my gamer friends.” As for the smattering of late-middle-aged, bordering-on-elderly attendees, maybe they were there because they held residual affection for how adorable she’d been as a contestant on America’s Got Talent in 2010. And then there was the young African-American woman who kept frantically waving her arms and screaming obscenities at the wholesome Mormon violinist — happy obscenities, as in, “Can you f-ing believe this? Every f-ing note is so f-ing fantastic!”

Stirling never made it past the quarter-finals on America’s Got Talent, with Piers Morgan and the other judges finally losing faith in her appeal, and Sharon Osbourne famously opining that the fiddler would never be able to fill halls if she didn’t hire a singer. Good thing Osbourne isn’t in the music business, right? But it’s hard to blame anyone for not realizing that the disparate elements Stirling represents — part Renaissance Faire ballerina, part hip-hop-choreography-loving rock star — wouldn’t cancel each other out. For what it’s worth, Stirling has hired a singer for a few guest slots, which doesn’t hurt in getting the idea across to those averse to instrumentals, and two of them — Dia Frampton and Lzzy Hale (no, that’s not a typo) — made vocal cameos at Club Nokia. But basically the whole thing works for all the reasons everyone expected it to bomb, lack of vocals included. And even if you think the music’s not especially sophisticated by the standards of what it’s borrowing from, which it’s not, any time something breaks through that the sages couldn’t possibly have seen coming, maybe it ought to be occasion more for grins than grumps.

Aspects of the staging did seem pitched more at a Taylor Swift audience than the relatively mature one that showed up at Club Nokia, though nothing in the whoops of the crowd suggested that they found anything beneath them. The opening “Beyond the Veil” had Stirling posing, yes, behind a ceiling-length veil, eventually appearing as a dervish clad in black tights with a bedazzled silver streak -- half ballet practitioner, half superhero. Soon enough, she and her two backup musicians were joined by two male dancers, whose steps ranged from ersatz B-ball moves to a kind of hip-hop variation on Irish stepping. At one point late in the set, they even put on modest pirate gear and acted out looking for something on a map. It was very, very silly, although maybe not as ill considered as the video montage of Stirling as a young tyke that covered for a costume change. T-Swift can get away with showing us her childhood home movies, but it’s a bit presumptuous for Stirling, especially if she’s not even going to let us see her first faltering attempts on the fiddle.

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But as Trey Stone and Matt Parker would attest, there’s something deeply infectious about that brand of Utah-bred wholesomeness, especially when it’s paired with a real talent. Stirling’s first costume change was right on stage, as her backup dancers helped her put on some glow-in-the-dark green duds; she joked about how she’d seen Lady Gaga do the same kind of on-stage change recently and was confident that hers had been just as sexy. Later on, in a rare somber turn, she introduced “Take Flight” by explaining how the instrumental had been inspired by the suicide attempt of a bullied elementary-school-age fan, making a quick pitch for spirituality as a safety net if a human support system fails. It was all cheers and no blanching for that vague nod to the LDS among the heavy-drinking crowd on Club Nokia’s bar level.

As for the music itself. there’s not nearly enough variance in Stirling’s vaguely moody melodies, and her playing consistently favors frenzy over emotion, that instrumental anti-suicide anthem notwithstanding. This proves to be a weakness on record, as on her new sophomore album, Shatter Me, where there’s never much let-up in the busyness on top of dubstep rhythms, or any indication that letting the pace flag could possibly be a good thing. Her unflappable need to play as many notes as possible is more of a good thing in concert, since it is accompanied by lots and lots of dancing, both choreographed and not, and if you have an iota of tolerance for cuteness, you may find that resistance to the bowing/hoofing combination package is futile.

Stirling was joined on “We are Giants” by Dia Frampton, who also served as her opening act. Frampton sounds more fragile-voiced than you’d expect for a former Voice finalist, but it fits the artsier musical direction she’s pursuing, with a new EP promised for iTunes release in a few weeks. There was nothing fragile, meanwhile, about Lzzy Hale, the metal singer who recreated her lead vocal on the new album’s “Shatter Me,” presumably for this show only. “Shatter Me” is the hit Evanescence wish they could have again, and it almost makes you think Sharon Osbourne was right about what could happen if Stirling hired a full-time singing partner. Except it’s easy to imagine her moving across the block to the bigger Nokia Theatre keeping things just the way they are. The men don’t know, but the violin-loving little girls and EDM-craving gamers and New Age middle-agers understand.

Set list:

Beyond the Veil
Mirror Haus
Electric Daisy Violin
Night Vision
We are Giants (with Dia Frampton)
Zelda Medley
Transcendence (acoustic)
All of Me (acoustic, John Legend cover)
Take Flight
Moon Trance 
Roundtable Revival
Master of Tides 
Shatter Me (with Lzzy Hale)
Stars Align