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Natalie Merchant live!

| July 23, 2010 | 0 Comments

Chicago Theatre, Chicago
Thursday, July 22, 2010

After Natalie Merchant spent 2003 sifting through the vintage and contemporary folk vaults for The House Carpenter’s Daughter, it was apparent she was steering toward a more organic route than the jangle rock of 10,000 Maniacs and her blissful solo beginnings. Seven years later, she ups the random meter by indulging herself in no less than 26 lullabies, nursery rhymes, and poems on the new Leave Your Sleep, which is once again spun in an Appalachian tradition.

The stripped-down direction also fused its way into Merchant’s latest live show, which featured more than half of the new double-disc collection that took up the first 90 minutes of her two-and-a-half-hour performance. Such a decision proved to be an exercise in artistic liberty, but also tested the audience’s patience, who were nonetheless quiet and respectful during the first half-dozen selections, but eventually shouted for some oldies.

While the concept could’ve easily flopped, the chanteuse seemed so excited about the material and was affable enough in her storytelling that she somehow managed to divert their desires for more familiar material (at least temporarily). A homespun rendition of “Nursery Rhyme Of Innocence And Experience” helped break the ice as she shared that the lyrics revolved around having to explain some of life’s most difficult questions to a child in terms they could understand.

Though the labor of love was clearly influenced by Merchant’s motherhood, there were just a handful of kids in the audience, while her eight-piece backing band leaned much closer to the direction of a T Bone Burnett production than “Sesame Street.” Still the singer acknowledged a young boy named Colin in the audience (whom she met earlier in the day at a CD signing), even calling him on stage for a casual chat before singing his favorite song, “Bleezer’s Ice-Cream.” The comical cut was about the many flavors someone could figuratively sample and there were so many that Merchant had to refer to a piece of paper.

By the time she got to square dancing for “Calico Pie,” a self-indulgent aura set in, while “The Dancing Bear” was clearly geared towards a younger audience, in turn, alienating the adults as they hoped for something recognizable. Thankfully, there would be plenty of those moments as Merchant soon quipped, “This isn’t an encore, it’s like a second show without the intermission.”

Evoking the MTV Unplugged project her previous band released in 1993, the singer dusted off solo breakthrough cuts like “Wonder” and “Carnival,” promising to make the people happy and encouraging everyone to sing along. The full house appeared even more appeased when she dusted off 10,000 Maniacs’ “Eat For Two,” enhanced by a pair of string players, though requests for “These Are Days” and “Because The Night” were ignored.

At least she closed the somewhat uneven but still engaging evening with “Kind And Generous,” displaying some of her most radiant vocal chops of the entire show and suggesting there’s still some vitality left in the pop department should she ever reclaim that path. Although there’s no telling the next chapter of her career, at least Merchant’s still willing to acknowledge some of the reasons she’s gotten this far, while sounding like she hasn’t aged a single second along the way.

— Andy Argyrakis

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Category: Featured, Live Reviews, Weekly

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