I remember having a professor in college who was so difficult to understand that several friends and I used to say that he must have attended the Natalie Merchant School of Enunciation. We were a clever group who had grown up — or at the very least shared a great deal of teen angst — with the 10,000 Maniacs, a large percentage of whose lyrics I to this day cannot understand. Particularly the inspired, climactic lines when Natalie Merchant is just wailing unapologetically in a Blissed Out Mumbleland. Having lived in Boston for five years with a Mayor people affectionally call Mumbles, I’m down with it. I’m well versed in feeling you, whether I understand what the hell you’re saying or not.
Anyway, I had never before seen her in concert until this summer, when I was lucky enough to catch her on tour for her latest album, Leave Your Sleep, at the Strathmore Music Center. This is a neat two-disc concept album on which she adapts “various poems, including works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Graves, Ogden Nash and Christina Rossetti.” I hadn’t heard the album at the time I saw her in late July, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
It was definitely “an evening with” Natalie Merchant. She was backed by an orchestra and came out on stage dressed all in black, with a lace shawl and a giant flower in her hair. She talked to us. She explained who the authors were whose poems she had chosen to adapt, and in some cases why she had chosen that particular poet; she discussed their writing styles and told stories about them. She talked about her daughter and the questions she is starting to ask about life and death and why that is important because, as she has said, the album is a “project about childhood.”
She had a slide show.
At first she seemed kind of reserved. I couldn’t tell if this was deliberate on her part, or whether or not she was genuinely warming up — to the orchestra, to the night, to us. As the evening progressed she loosened up; she lost the shawl; she removed the flower; she joked with the audience; she was saucy. I couldn’t get any pictures during the show because of rules and a crappy camera, but here’s the general set-up:
Things really just kept getting better and better, and what was clear throughout was that she genuinely loved the material — not just the music she had created but the original authors whose words she had adapted for this project. She spoke about the poets like they were her personal friends — and after so many years of living with their work, I can imagine that’s how they must seem to her. And, ohmygodcanshesing.
I’ve loved her since I was fifteen years old, so of course part of me wanted to change real quick in to my Reduce, Reuse, Recycle t-shirt and smiley-face shorts and have her sing “Like the Weather” and “These Are Days” while I danced around in circles wearing a crown made of tied-together dandelions. Instead …
I sat there, mesmerized, as she performed these intricate, beautiful, sometimes soaring and sometimes silly songs of childhood. I went into the show worried that I would regret not having seen her on previous tours (in particular on those occasions when she used to appear with Michael Stipe which were, consequently, long before I would have been able to see her in the first place). I worried that I would find myself hoping for some of her “old” stuff. I didn’t. So it was that much sweeter when it came.
She performed an eight-song set for her encore, which included songs mostly from her solo albums, although a couple were from her 10,000 Maniacs days. I only remember seven of them, which is both miraculous and somehow lame, but anyway:
1. “River” (Tigerlily)
2. “Eat for Two” (Blind Man’s Zoo; Unplugged)
3. “Frozen Charlotte” (Ophelia)
4. “Carnival” (Tigerlily)
5. “Gold Rush Brides” (Our Time in Eden; Unplugged)
6. “The Worst Thing” (Motherland)
8. She ended with “Kind and Generous” (Ophelia)
I about lost it when she sang “River;” and while I never loved “Kind and Generous,” it was — seriously — the perfect way to end the evening. She floated off the stage singing refrains of thank you thank you as she walked through the audience, shaking hands, kissing kids, hugging folks … until she finally walked toward the side exit doors, made a final turn, waved once more to the audience and, with one last thank you, she was gone. I know she does it night after night. But one of the reasons I loved seeing her live is because — probably in large part because it’s her job! — she made this crotchety old cynic feel like she did it just for me.