During her show Saturday night at Whitney Hall with the Louisville Orchestra, Natalie Merchant twirled, danced, and gracefully floated her hands to the rhythm of the music. At face value, that type of description could have been found in a concert review twenty years ago on 10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden tour. And although she opened the show with a song off that album – Gold Rush Brides – not much was similar to stage shows of the 90s. Then again, that’s not her objective.
One constant, however, is her voice. Few in popular music are as distinct, and she showed off its power throughout the show, especially on The Land of Nod from her latest release Leave Your Sleep and Seven Years off her solo debut Tigerlily. One hallmark of Merchant’s songs has been their ascending urgency. From What’s the Matter Here? to Stockton Gala Days to King of May, her songs often build dramatically. Such a musical predisposition lends itself perfectly to an orchestral arrangement.
The Louisville Orchestra again proved to be a jewel of the city’s arts community. Always consummate professionals, the musicians led by conductor Bob Bernhardt played the songs to perfection, which is a tribute to a group that is arguably more familiar with the work of Debussy and Wagner than Merchant. The Orchestra’s highlight may have come in their last song, appropriately titled The End. Written for but not release on Motherland, the orchestra painted a lush and cinematic landscape. It was a really beautiful piece of music that suggests Merchant may want to someday try her hand at film scores.
Merchant played a new song called Butterfly which boasted a haunting melody and a palpable melancholy and another new one entitled Lulu from a forthcoming album due next spring. Both give great promise to the release on Nonesuch Records.
The Letter from Ophelia became fully realized with the orchestra, much more expansive than the original, sparse arrangement. Before Verdi Cries, she mentioned that she wrote that song at 19, which makes you wonder how some of today’s teen singers will fare when they are 50. From its words to its original string arrangement, it is a song that has not only held up well over time, but may even sound better all these years later.
There was no void of passion in her voice or performance. After singing the emotional My Beloved Wife, she mentioned she performed that at a memorial service the week before for Pete Seeger’s wife Toshi. The couple in the song had been married for fifty years, but the Seegers were actually just shy of seventy. For me, the song resonated as I thought of my father, a widower now for nearly three years. Songs can take on different meanings and have different effects on us as our life changes, but the song wouldn’t deliver the emotional punch without Merchant’s impassioned delivery, and the orchestra didn’t let down on the song’s inherent tugging at the heartstrings, either.
The highlight of the evening was just four songs into the show, when she did a spirited version of Life is Sweet in which she moved side to side on the stage and brought a real vibrancy to the song. It was grandiose and sweeping and actually closely resembled the studio version of Ophelia, which originally featured a great string arrangement.
Merchant seemed relaxed and appeared to be enjoying herself. She was affable and funny, as her commentary went from tiny airplanes to daylight savings time. At one point she introduced the wrong song and asked “Who’s the sponsor again?” jokingly referring to Brown-Forman, the sponsor of the WOW! Series. For her last set, she did a handful of songs sans orchrestra with guitarist Gabriel Gordon and pianist Uri Sharlin. Wonder drew a huge applause and it was followed by the equally well-received Kind and Generous, These Are Days, Carnival, Hey Jack Kerouac, and Break Your Heart.
She also tried her best with some medleys from the 70s, including Johnny Wakelin’s 1975 hit Black Superman (Muhammad Ali) as homage to Louisville’s famous pugilist and activist, but it often felt like Stump the Band as Gordon did his best to figure out the unfamiliar tunes, which he did successfully on Kansas’ Dust in the Wind. It was a little more like an act reserved for someone’s living room instead of a concert hall, but that’s not to say it was unwelcome. At one point after going into Danny’s Song (a Kenny Loggins’ song made famous by Anne Murray), Merchant she said “We really cut loose and do a lot of Anne Murray covers.” Indeed, the second part of the show was much looser and light.
Before Hey Jack Kerouac, she said, “We are taking you back to 1987.” While some longtime fans may have longed to go back to that year and see her in her In My Tribe glory, those fans who have followed her career also know her latest step is a logical progression in a career that may not get people on their feet dancing like it once did , but still have the ability to move them with her words and music. The crowd seemed to revere her older material but also appreciate her new direction, which is praise for an artist proud of her past but also excited by her future.
Photos by Glen Hirsch