“Well, it’s time to start. Let’s say hi to, uh, Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs.”
I have heard that line over 500 times in the last 30 years. MTV Unplugged: 10,000 Maniacs was the third CD I purchased with money from my paper route and it is still the album I return to for music that soothes the soul.
For me, Natalie Merchant is the standard by which I compare all other female pop and folk vocalists. There is something about her warm, whole, natural, real tone that breathes believability into her lyrics, while mixing a perfect combination of both vulnerability and empowerment. There are others who are more honored, receive more awards, and may be considered by critics superior in their capabilities. But if you want to melt away anxiety, draw a bath, light some candles, dim the lights, and put on a 180g vinyl master recording of one of Ms. Merchant’s brilliant solo endeavors like Tigerlily or Motherland. We previewed this concert earlier on the site, so you loyal readers already know the basics!
Her touring schedule and my location and availability finally aligned* at the Miller Theater on the Kimmel Cultural Campus in Philadelphia on April 21, 2023. This was about 20 years after I first wanted to see her in concert. Going in, I was a little nervous. Over a career, professional singers’ voices develop and change as they continue to refine their style and mature. In 2012, Natalie Merchant released her 1995 masterpiece, Tigerlily, singing to new arrangements, while maintaining the original lyrics. I thought the artistic choices in this latter album were brilliant. But I preferred the vocals from the first. (Part of me wishes someone would do a second remaster pulling the former vocals into the accompaniment of the latter!) Will I love the vocal evolution of the artist, or long for the nostalgia of my youth? This proved to be the wrong question. This was more than a musician singing. This was simultaneously a sublime and buoyant experience.
Just down from the Verizon Theater, of the Kimmel Cultural Campus, is the Miller Theater. We’ve been here before for operas, musicals, and plays. It is not the intimate setting one envisions attending to listen to a folk artist, but Natalie Merchant is not just any storytelling musician.
She sold out all 1,842 seats at this venue early enough for the billboards to have the “sold out” banner printed on the posters.
We waited in the lobby while the technicians conducted final sound checks, and took our seats about 30 minutes before the performance. Ushers helped each patron find their seats. Our seats were in the back of the Orchestra section, but the steep grade of the seating made it easy to see the entire stage. We ended up at eye level with drummer.
The Playbill described the concert: “On her beguiling, ninth studio album Keep Your Courage, Natalie Merchant, examines love in all its guises. While the award-winning and multi platinum singer-songwriter has hardly issued love songs in the past, she has never been this immersed by them. By Merchant’s count she mentions love 26 times across Keep Your Courage. ‘I think the pandemic was a great period of solitude and longing,’ she says by way of one possible explanation for her fixation on matters of the heart. ‘I craved and savor human connection; it was the only thing that really mattered.’ Keep Your Courage is a sonically, desperate and musically, sumptuous collection, produced by Merchant, and recorded in Vermont with trusted collaborators and new friends.”
Her ensemble consisted of a pianist, guitarist, drummer, standing bass, cello, a viola, two violins, and a single back-up/duet singer, yet Ms. Merchant commanded the attention of the audience like only seasoned veterans of their craft can do. She is incredibly comfortable on stage, relaxed and inviting. Her interactions with the audience were warm and caring; for example, when the laser lighting ended up hitting an audience member in the face, she went and tried to block it while changing the lyrics to “Billy, the lights are hitting her in the face” and then joked about it mid song.
Her free spirit and dancing made the audience so comfortable that I saw something I have not witnessed before at such a concert; she motioned to the audience to stand and join her dancing, and they did with almost no hesitation. And they stayed there singing and swaying with her until intermission.
Her vocals and her confidence have grown stronger with time, yet the most impressive part of the evening was how she combined her movements, natural expressive style, and vocals to turn each song into a story. She sang for nearly 90 minutes before the intermission while keeping the audience engaged in her performance. Is her voice as bright as three decades ago? No, yet her intonation and performance brought a folksy, strong, and sultry mix of contagious narrative joy that is unique and powerful.
This was a concert experience I do not want to forget; so, I purchased a signed copy of the album at intermission. With the energy and effort put into the first half of the performance, I expected a 30-45 minute set for the second half. Instead, we were treated to an hour and fifteen minute main course before a three song encore dessert. If you know her music, then you understand how special tonight’s performance was. Each song had a unique arrangement, different than those on the albums.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus continues to impress by professionally showcasing each entertainer masterfully. If Natalie Merchant is coming to a venue near you, don’t hesitate to procure tickets early for an evening of folk-pop-storytelling. To learn more about the Kimmel Cultural Campus and upcoming events, visit them online.
*we were invited to facilitate a feature, all opinions are our own*