Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Natalie Merchant perform selections from her (eagerly awaited after seven years off devoted to raising her first child) album Leave Your Sleep, a concept album consisting of poems from predominantly Victorian children’s books adapted into songs by Merchant herself.
Wow. That was a long sentence.
This concert was made all the more intimate and aesthetic as it was housed in the somewhat small performance space at the Getty Center, making the entire experience one of those special moments when you love Los Angeles, because you’re enjoying something uniquely LA; like getting rear-ended by Tom Hanks or having Beverley D’Angelo bum a cigarette off you.
I can’t say I was a fan of 10,000 Maniacs, though I always respected them, and quite fancy their live album recorded for Mtv Unplugged. However, once Ms. Merchant went solo, I rallied and stood up to be counted.
It’s easy, in a popular culture so quickly and easily distracted by any shiny object dropped in its path, to undervalue Natalie Merchant’s musical contributions. As though a living embodiment of the very women (both historical and archetypal) she champions, her image brings to mind the brainy but dowdy girl in the library who might be pretty if she removed her glasses, set down that copy of Mrs. Dalloway and knocked back a couple shots of tequila. Who must her music be for, then, if not smart, lonely, college girls and melancholy gay men?
Well, we’re idiots if we think this, because Natalie Merchant is – and you can quote me on this – hot, motherf**in’ shit. Bringing a treasure trove of historical and literary references to her work becomes important when you consider how she deftly grounds this source-material in the (often mundane) experiences of our dumb hearts. Hers is not the realm of the Intelligentsia – you need never have written a thesis on the impact of the cholera epidemic on romantic literature in order for her songs to make you feel considered – even when these songs might be about said epidemic.
And let’s not forget – her tunes are catchy! Sure, they’re often backed by lush but sullen orchestrations or a down-tempo beat more appropriate for injecting heroin than conquering the disco, but after a few listens of any one song, chances are you’ll find yourself humming them hours afterwards.
I myself was surprised by how flirtatious, charismatic, playful and unselfconscious Ms. Merchant performed. She oftentimes literally escaped the limelight for exuberant strolls to the stage wings, or into the audience, or sometimes just to look at the screen projections that accompanied the songs, as though forgetting she was the star of the evening. In fact, her whole persona reminded me of a favorite schoolteacher – a substitute, perhaps – who wasn’t haggard by years of disappointing students, rather, was enthusiastic about the material she taught, to the point of sometimes seeming scatterbrained. Imagine what Einstein would have been like teaching a physics class, or taking a field trip to Greece with Isadora Duncan, or, if you don’t have an imagination, watch the rad movie Pennies From Heaven for Bernadette Peters’ performance as a lovable teacher...
...All these are examples of how Ms. Merchant’s performance struck me. This was not the dowdy girl from the library – this was the street-smart, Sicilian girl who stole your virginity when all you thought you were gonna do was share a lemon Coke.
If you get the chance to see her perform this tour, do yourself a favor and attend. Ms. Merchant is so effervescent and spontaneous that any night you choose to see her will undoubtedly be just as special as if you caught her at the Getty. Come ready to learn some details about poets you’ve probably never heard of, and stay for the encore where you’ll get to hear your favorite singles, and if Ms. Merchant invites the entire audience over to her house afterwards to watch All About Eve, as she did the night I went, for goodness sakes, go! Just be careful when the lemon Cokes start pouring…