“Are you making a movie or taking a photo?” Natalie Merchant asks a member of the seated audience. “I hope it’s pretty,” she laughs in response to their answer. “I’ve never seen a photo taken of someone from five feet below them that wasn’t worth deleting!”
This light banter is indicative of the evening and it’s the most relaxed and engaged I’ve ever seen Natalie be in a live show. I first saw her perform as part of 10,000 Maniacs back in the late 1980s and have found her shows to be consistently intriguing and inspiring. However, she’s rarely been as audaciously at home on stage as she is tonight, throwing out frequent witty remarks, enjoying audience comments, lost words and the peculiarities of the venue.
With more than three decades of recordings to draw upon, song choice for a two hour show can hardly be easy. Surprisingly, there is little from the new, self-titled album, released just days before the show. It’s her first album of original material in 13 years, but Natalie seems inclined to balance the show more strongly in favour of older tracks. Still, from the new album we were treated to the latent frustrations of Ladybird, the sobering reflections of Giving Up Everything and the soulful lament of Lulu, her tribute to Louise Brooks, an American actress of the 1920/30s.
Natalie’s previous record, Leave Your Sleep, where she set to music a collection of childhood-centred poems from the 19th and 20th century, is given more space, with a mid section of the show entirely dedicated to it. The Man In The Wilderness, Equestrienne, Vain And Careless and Spring And Fall: To A Young Child are delicate yet powerful. The lush Maggie And Milly And Molly And May, based on a poem by E. E. Cummings, proves the highlight of this segment of the show.
Throughout the evening, the singer is fully in command of the band. She counts the musicians in at the start of songs and gracefully moves her hands and arms through the air in time with changes in tempo or instrumentation, as though conducting her own orchestra.
Natalie is backed by eight musicians, including a four piece string section, and the excellent sound quality in this intimate venue enables us to hear every word. Indeed, there’s great clarity in her articulation. This is rather in contrast to the way some early 10,000 Maniacs songs were recorded, where unusual placement of emphasis would often end up with words flowing into one another or sounding like other words, creating an enjoyable language all of their own and a meaning beyond the original sense. But at this stage of her musical career, clarity is paramount in the impassioned delivery of each song.
Only one 10,000 Maniacs track makes it to the set list, the beautiful Gold Rush Brides, whose closing line has always sent a chill down my spine and Natalie’s intense and controlled delivery aptly conveys the sadness and mystery of the story.
The mood is lightened again towards the end of She Devil, when she completely forgets the words and laughs in surprise, stating that no one in the audience can even help her out because the words where never printed anywhere. As the band carries on playing, she looks around her and says she feels like she’s “lost in a James Bond movie from 1968”.
Throughout the evening, Natalie dances as though she is dancing for herself and nothing to do with the audience. There is a freedom to her familiar twirling movements and flamenco style hand gestures, conveying a feeling of relishing the music fully and inviting the listeners to do the same.
The crowd burst into adoring applause at the end of the set and the band is quickly brought back for not one but two encores. Classic tracks from early in her solo career, including Life Is Sweet, Wonder and Carnival, are warmly received.
Katell Keineg, who provided backing vocals on occasional songs during the show, is brought back for a rendition of her own song, Gulf Of Araby.
Natalie’s self-described ‘calling card’ track, Kind And Generous, is saved for last and she encourages the audience to get up and dance, which they enthusiastically do. She dances joyously, whirls and swishes her hair wildly, the audience claps and sways, and the night ends with a sense of genuine celebration. The audience spills out of the venue with an appropriate abundance of gratitude – the “thank you, thank you” repetitions, at the end of the last song, still ringing in our ears and hearts. What a joy to see such an unusual and unpredictable artist now, more than ever, seeming to enjoy performing for us, as much as we enjoyed listening to her.
Review by Imelda Michalczyk and photographs by Marilyn Kingwill on 10 May 2014, Natalie Merchant at Milton Court Concert Hall in London on 10 May 2014.