Most of the shows that Sarah and I go to are for bands that I, or more often we, like. We have very similar tastes in music, although I veer off in one way (extreme noise and metal) and she veers off in other ways (country). So although I am usually on the look out for bands that I want to see, I know that there are artists that she would love to see as well. And that’s where Natalie Merchant comes in.
I really liked 10,000 Maniacs, although by the end of their time, I felt like they were perhaps a bit too preachy. When Merchant’s Tigerlily came out I mis-heard “Carnival” as “Carnivore” I thought it was a pointedly vegetarian song (and nobody needs that, frankly). So although I liked some of the songs on the album, I didn’t really seek it out.
But Sarah loved Tigerlily and Ophelia, and I grew to enjoy them over the years as well. Although neither one of us listened much to her output since then (which is actually four albums, including a new one which was released in May). Suffice it to say that I knew fewer songs at this show than at any concert I’ve been to in a long time.
Having said all that, Merchant puts on a good show. First off, her voice sounds amazing. It’s instantly recognizable as hers and she can still hit all of the notes (not that she does many high notes) with the richness and fullness that I know of her. I was immediately impressed with how great she sounded. Also, the band sounded great too. She had a small string section (two violin, a viola and an upright bass), a drummer, a keyboardist and a guitarist. While some credit goes to the State Theatre’s acoustics (we were in the very top section of cheap seats), the strings sounded wonderfully lush and the drums in particular sounded great. The one drawback is that we could barely see her–I couldn’t see he face at all really, although I did enjoy seeing her long gray hair spinning around her head.
The music, especially in the beginnng, had a classic era jazz feel to it–with the big string sound accompanying. It suits Merchant’s voice quite well, although I felt like a lot of the songs sounded too similar in this style. (Beautiful but similar). It was also five songs before she played anything from Tigerlily, so even Sarah was a little lost (although I think that the deep cut “Seven Years” was a nice surprise for her).
She played a lot of music from her new album (as she should–six out of ten songs from the album), but I actually thought there would be a few more hits (I don’t know if anything from Leave Your Sleep or Motherland could be considered a hit although there was some strong reaction to a few of those songs].
As for Natalie herself, she seemed a little distant as a performer which kept with my feeling of her as being sort of aloof. She did a lot of hand and arm motions that made it seem like she was conducting the strings (I assume that really she was just into the music and “playing” along with it). But I couldn’t help think how awkward it was for a lead singer to have nothing to do. After a few songs she seemed to loosen up and did some fun dance moves (although again, she seemed to dance towards her band rather than towards the audience).
I felt like it was going to be the kind of show where I could close my eyes and just enjoy the beautiful music. But once she broke the silence and started talking us, she seemed much more fun. She talked about her new album and how no one had it here yet, but that she knew where you could get it. She also talked about how much she preferred CDs to streaming music (even though she railed against CD packaging way back in the 90s). But the most wonderful moment came from her forgetting a lyric.
It was her new song “Texas,” and she simply forgot the words. So someone said to look in the booklet (she had the CD on stage to show off), so she laughed and got the booklet out. Then she realized she couldn’t read it, so someone in the front row gave her his glasses (which were too strong apparently), so another person gave her her glasses and she was able to read the words and then played the song flawlessly. Imagine saying you gave Natalie Merchant your glasses! That humanizing really seemed to loosen her up and she was much more fun throughout the set–dancing more wildly (to the thunderous applause of the fans) and ultimately asking if she was playing for too long (the set was over two hours). Of course by then she was nearing the end of the show and she was playing her big hits so no one wanted her to leave.
When she came back for the encore she had removed her (adorable) fuschia tights and big shoes and did a lot more dancing (barefoot). It seemed to free her even more. She even played a little game of singing Beatles songs–point to someone and they have to think of a different Beatles song, if you repeat, you are out.
I was thrilled that she played “These Are Days” as I didn’t expect any Maniacs material. I was also happy to hear her play Carnival (which I have since come to like very much, especially in the bouncy version she played here). She almost forgot to play “Carnival” and had to “convince” the band to play it for superstitious reasons. And “Kind & Generous” proved to be a great closer.
It interests me that the local paper, in promoting the show said that “Alongside her newest material will be the classics with which longtime fans first fell in love: “Jealousy,” “These Are the Days,” “Because the Night,” to name a few.” If you look at the setlist, she played only one of those songs.
Here’s the setlist. [new] refers to the new self titled album; [lys] is Leave Your Sleep and [mother] is Motherland
- Lulu [new]
- The Worst Thing [mother]
- maggie and milly and molly and may [lys]
- Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience [lys]
- Seven Years [tigerlily]
- Giving Up Everything [new]
- Beloved Wife [tigerlily]
- Maggie Said [new]
- She Devil [outtake from Ophelia]
- The Man in the Wilderness [lys]
- Texas [new]
- It’s A-Coming [new]
- River [tiger]
- Life Is Sweet [ophelia]
- Ladybird [new]
- Break Your Heart [ophelia]
- This House Is on Fire [mother]
- These Are Days (10,000 Maniacs song)
- Wonder [tigerlily]
- Motherland [mother]
- I’m Not Gonna Beg [mother]
- Carnival [tigerlily]
- Kind & Generous [ophelia]
It was a wonderful show and I found that I liked her in this setting more than on record (although Sarah felt that she changed the arrangements a little too much in this new string band setting).
Now if only the State Theatre can fix that outrageously squeaky chair that the usher in section 6 was sitting on (holy crap was that distracting) and maybe he can lighten up a bit on the people taking pictures (it wasn’t me, I wasn’t going to take any with that guy hovering).