With a career spanning more than 30 years, tonight Natalie Merchant reconfirms her place as one of the most insightful songwriters going. Though her 2010 concept album Leave Your Sleep saw her combine a collection of 19th and 20th century poetry about childhood, her latest self titled release sees her step back to her own numbers. It’s here she shines, showing her ability to accurately capture and convey what it means to be human.
Tonight however there’s no hard sell, and despite the new release the audience are treated to an array of songs spanning her back catalogue and also throwing 10,000 Maniacs Gold Rush Brides into the mix. In turn she leaves little doubt that she’s not only a superb vocalist but also able to hold her own on stage, conducting the band (which tonight sees a London based string section join her, despite minimal rehearsal time) and adding her own mischievous anecdotes to the mix.
For me it’s the haunting Giving Up Everything which captures the heart of her new album, whilst Lulu (which pays homage to Louise Brooks) nestles in with River (her tribute to River Phoenix) to highlight her ability to encapsulate others’ lives in song. Whilst She Devil sees her force the band to restart, later remarking “aren’t you glad I’m not your orthopaedic surgeon” it also shows she’s not lost her more sultry vibe. This is reconfirmed later in the night when she’s joined by Katell Keineg (writer of Gulf Of Araby) for a duet which sees them break down into fits of laughter.
In the “wheel of fortune” slot the crowd demand Wonder, perhaps highlighting the love for Merchant’s early work ,and when this is coupled with her calling card Kind and Generous at the end of the set, though they call for more, it’s clear it’s not coming. Nevertheless, despite delivering the flamenco driven The Man In The Wilderness and the emotive Seven Years elsewhere in the set, there were always going to be more songs she could have delivered. In some ways this leaves tonight being marked by what she chooses to leave out, rather than what she puts in. Though there are countless numbers she could have added to the mix, tonight sees her leave very few of her best loved songs at the door.