As I sit and wait for the Raven haired beauty Natalie Merchant to take the stage at the historic Chicago Theater, I am reminded I have actually seen her live twice before. First as the lead singer of the 10,000 Maniacs in 1989, a mischievous pixie of an emerging artist, posed center stage, she really was the show. I called her solo career that night, a few years before she actually left the band to spread her creative wings. With a large puppet face over her slight 5 foot 1 inch frame, all eyes from the audience were on her. She interacted very little with the other band members. This songstress was ready to stretch beyond her college radio burgeoning fame.
I next saw here about a decade later, this time the co-headliner with Sarah McLachlan during the 1998 traveling utopian musical festival known as Lilith Fair. Merchant was now an established solo artist at the top of her fame with songs from both “Tigerlily” and “Ophelia” permanent fixtures in the American songbook. Now here we are in 2014, ready to “meet again.” As Natalie walked, understated, onto the stage, her shoulder length raven hair I dutifully recalled, now half way down her back, pulled into a simple pony tail, heavily peppered with grey. She was dressed in a simple knee length black dress, bright blue tights and black Mary Jane shoes. A bright blue pashmina quickly discarded as she started her set on her now rescheduled tour to promote her latest cd, May 2014’s “Natalie Merchant.” She was originally set to play the Chicago Theater back in July, but ended up in the hospital instead. I must say, July’s wait was most definitely September’s gain. My third time experiencing this artist, reveling in her craft, was indeed the charm.
As she started her show, I was so impressed with the quality of her wonderful eight piece band, four members on stringed instruments. I recall reading when she was a child, her mother took her to the symphony because her mother loved classical music. Clearly this first set was something which would have made her mother extraordinarily proud. Natalie started with “Lulu,” “The Worst Thing,” “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May,” “Seven Years” and the gorgeous “Beloved Wife.” The audience along for this lyrical, poetic journey with a songstress once described as a song writer “with literate, socially conscious songs” that helped to “establish her among the preeminent women in pop music.” With today’s “pop tarts” being lead by the Iggy’s and the Miley’s. it seems sad to me, and Natalie herself, that her song’s are not still played on the radio. Merchant lamented about the “collapse of the record industry” and pined that “I wish my record company could see all of you right now.” She repeatedly chatted with the audience a great deal during her 2 hour 45 minute set.
Her next song was my personal favorite of the first hour of her material. “She Devil” is a song she shared “I wrote for the Tigerlily album but it didn’t fit. So I saved it for Ophelia, but it didn’t fit there either.” “Look out, she’s coming at ya, big dark eyes like Cleopatra, the eyes of a femme fatale. She’s better than a work of fiction, half ingénue, half a vixen. Your little paper doll, but brother she’s a wicked sister, subtle and sly, watch it mister, and take my advice, stay away or number your days. Opiate clouds surround you, an addiction to love has found you out.” Wow! “Wrecking Ball” just won the video of the year at the most recent MTV Awards. I am beginning to side with Natalie about the collapse of the music industry, but I was too enchanted by the performance of “She Devil” to bother.
As the show continued into it’s second hour, the hair came out of the pony tail and her trademark dance steps, more organic and lyrical in nature to coincide with her music, were ever present. Merchant was on tour to sell her current self-titled record, so she entertained with “Texas,” “River,” “Life is Sweet,” Ladybird” and “Break Your Heart.” The sumptuous lighting behind her, warming from bright oranges and reds, then quickly cooled with mystical turquoise and purples. I could have listened to that gorgeous string quartet for hours, however this is a Natalie Merchant show, so after allowing them their well deserved adulation and applause, they were released from their musical duties and from the stage for the night. Natalie then turned to the audience for requests and inspiration for her final set.
Pulling up a stool, she sat next to her guitarist as he fumbled through the heavily requested “Trouble Me.” Pulling a lucky fan from the audience to assist her vocally on the song “Jealousy” that Natalie said “I haven’t sung this in seventeen years.” She them lamented on “Seventeen” and broke out into a spontaneous version of the Janice Ian classic. “I learned the truth at seventeen. That love was meant for beauty queens. And high school girls with clear skinned smiles. Who married young and then retired.
Those of us with ravaged faces. Lacking in the social graces. Desperately remained at home. Inventing lovers on the phone. Who called to say “come dance with me” and murmured vague obscenities.” Merchant pondered the line “murmured vague obscenities?” Merchant then called this “the saddest song ever written” while pretending to stab herself in the abdomen with a imaginary knife.
Finally, a very determined audience member demanded she sing “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz. “Ok, ok, sheesh……” she exclaimed, then began the familiar ditty “I would while away the hours….” Natalie sang the first verse in her trademark bravado to great cheers from the audience. She then went into a medley of the rest of her hits; “Wonder,” “Carnival,” and “These Are The Days.”Before saying goodnight, she teased us with the first line of Carol Burnett’s signature theme “I’m so glad we had this time together.” After a few giggles, she started with her “na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na’s” of her epic 1990’s anthem, “Kind and Generous.”I felt ending with this song very fitting as they both described her decades of poetic platitudes, as well as an audience that has stayed with her all evening and throughout the years. I am now proudly pondering the few greys staring to appear in my chestnut colored hair. This final set was my favorite of the night, not just because it was filled with the hits we all knew and loved, “Trouble Me” my personal favorite of the night, clearly un-rehearsed and playfully spur-of-the-moment, delightfully fumbled all the way through. Here was an artist so comfortable in her own skin and with her own presence. She spent so much time interacting with her band, something notably missing from her early shows in the late 1980’s. Merchant was having as much fun on stage as we were in the audience. I cannot think of anything more kind and generous than that.
Natalie Merchant appeared at the Chicago Theater Thursday September 11, 2014.