It’s been 20 odd years since Natalie Merchant last stood on the Apollo stage and back then it was as part of the 10,000 Maniacs. Tonight however she’s back, with just a minimalist three piece accompaniment in tow. Most would struggle to hold their voice for an hour under these circumstances, but Natalie works her way through a two and a half hour set, with songs spanning nearly 30 decades. If you account that her latest album Leave Your Sleep sets poetry dating back to the 1800’s to music, then tonight’s historic occasion becomes even more impressive. The album, which is Natalie’s homage to poets exploring the essence of childhood featured over 120 musicians and has been Natalie’s personal research project for the last seven years. Tonight she leads the audience through Rossetti’s Crying, My Little One to Lear’s Calico Pie, introducing each poet as ‘yours’ or ‘ours’ to denote their British/American origins.
At times, this half of the gigs reads like something of a history lesson as Natalie reels off dates and facts relating to each author, treating the audience to photographs and anecdotes to bring each poet and song to life. To start this feels almost lecture-like at the start but this changes when she hits the flamenco driven The Man in the Wilderness; embracing the rhythm she dances around the stage and quite literally begins to awaken the much forgotten masterpieces. Despite the album’s theme, it’s not all songs of innocence and Indian Names acts as a spine chilling reminder of Natalie’s ability to encapsulate historic tragedy into song. Musically, she transforms the poem into protest song, her powerful vocals resonating with passion around the venue.
It is however, after she vanished an hour into the show that the audience comes to life, the second half being devoted to Natalie’s extensive back catalogue. She starts with Tell Yourself, moving quickly onto Carnival before succumbing to audience requests. To start she says she can’t remember the words, yet soon she’s rattling off San Andreas Fault to audience delight. She succumbs yet further when the request for 10,000 Maniacs numbers occurs, embracing Don’t Talk and These Are The Days and whilst there are moments of faltering over words, she still receives a rapturous applause. Twenty one songs later, she rounds of with a faultless rendition of Motherland and exits the stage with rapid haste.
Despite many of the audience seated in the balcony taking this as their cue to leave, Natalie returns for a final encore and it is this which is to prove the defining moment of the night. She delivers a haunting version of Life is Sweet and then questions how many more songs the audience want. NME, she says, have criticised her previously for playing too long but this is met by an unwavering boo in response. Offering the option of one or two more songs, she is swayed to the latter and then defies herself and opts to play three. Cowboy Romance is coupled with Weeping Pilgrim which she transforms in to an audience participation number. All it takes is the finale Kind and Generous, complete with standing ovation and Natalie confirms why even years after she made her name in music, she is still the ultimate singer and storyteller. NME can say she played too long if they wish, but as Natalie herself exclaims she could have played for another three hours and it’s fair to say, if given half a chance, the audience would have gladly let her and with every good reason too.