My perception of Natalie Merchant is locked in the early ’90s. As one of the early stars of so-called alternative rock, Merchant gave off something of a precious vibe in the music press, and the press was all too willing to play up Merchant’s heavy hand in the creative direction of her former band, 10,000 Maniacs.
The younger Merchant had a propensity for dourness that pushed against with her bandmates’ eagerness to rock. Fans ended up with songs such as “What’s the Matter Here?”, a bouncy tune about child abuse.
I didn’t follow Merchant’s solo career because I was a big fan of that tension. I also liked the chemistry among the Maniacs, something Mary Ramsey nicely keyed into when she assumed singing duties after Merchant’s departure.
In 2010, Merchant emerged from a 7-year hiatus with an ambitious double album setting poems to music titled Leave Your Sleep. Guests on the album included the Klezmatics and Wynton Marsalis, and the songs ranged in style from orchestral to folk.
I liked Leave Your Sleep enough to catch Merchant with the Seattle Symphony.
I was marooned in Hawai`i during 10,000 Maniacs hey day, so I’ve never seen her perform live. I’ve heard about the twirling, but that’s about it.
In an orchestral setting, soloists don’t move from their appointed spot on the stage, but Merchant wandered back and forth, sometimes dancing as if at an Irish festival, other times barely squelching the urge to skip. She would sometimes gaze at the cello and viola sections with child-like curiosity.
It wasn’t entirely spontaneous — you can’t be with dozens of musicians depending on your cues — but it was apparent Merchant was invested in the performance. Thankfully, Merchant avoided the pitfall of having a rock drummer on stage, instead substituting the drum kit with a more nuanced percussive arrangement. The focus was entirely on the songs.
Most of the program concentrated on tracks from Leave Your Sleep, but Merchant did pull out a few songs from her solo albums and from her Maniacs days. No, I wouldn’t be able to recognize the solo stuff, but I did recognize “Goldrush Brides” and “Verdi Cries”.
The show did sometimes drag under the weight of one introspective songs following another. I’m also a bit sad “The Dancing Bear” didn’t make it into the set list.
At 10 p.m., Merchant had to bid the orchestra adieu, and that’s when the real show began. Reduced to a trio, Merchant and her players loosened up and engaged the audience. She harassed a guy recording the show on his phone, a gentle scolding that quickly became the source of a running joke. “These are days that you’ll remember,” she sang, then added to her would-be filmmaker, “especially if you’re capturing this on your phone.”
Merchant took suggestions from the audience, and I managed to get her attention by shouting, “My Mother the War!” “That song, ‘My Mother the War,’ sounds really good on a grand piano,” she answered.
Merchant finished the evening with “Kind and Generous”, a song in which she thanks an unnamed subject — presumably the audience — for their generosity. It works the other way around.
Merchant and the Seattle Symphony sounded great together, but Merchant with her audience was the real treat. It’s also nice to have perceptions be proven wrong with a good show.