Natalie feelin' cool.
Review and Photos by Barry BrecheisenApparently I missed the memo...when did Natalie Merchant cease to be cool? Back in the early days of MTV when she fronted the band 10,000 Maniacs she was the voice of an upcoming generation ready to take the reigns of the world with a kinder and gentler hand. You know, back when R.E.M. was relevant...Bill Berry please come back to us! It's now closing on ten years since Natalie left the folk-rockers behind and set out on her own. Last month she released Motherland, her third solo studio album. Finished just days prior to September 11th, the work is frighteningly prophetic considering it's thoughts on fear and pessimism. Her latest collection of twelve original songs go down a far darker path than previous efforts. Still, they retain the mixture of personal and political themes that have always lived in her lyrics.
Her success and music speaks for it's self. So why so much disinterest? Have we been spoon-fed one too many times by TRL that we can't think for ourselves? Or is it simply that the music scene has changed so drastically through the years that a talent like hers has no way to get her music to the masses? It seems the only way a woman can survive in today's music biz is to shake her ass, display her tattoos and of course never write their own music. Well people, I give you Natalie Merchant. She's the opposite of everything that is currently being spit out by the music machine.
I found my way to Chicago's Arie Crown Theatre on a cold Friday night in December to hear what Natalie had to say. She no longer has the Maniacs backing her, but she has an equally confident 5-piece band behind her. She spent much of the night introducing the audience to her new CD. It is, after all, a great album. During "Saint Judas," she let her hair down...literally. The music took her pulsating head along for the ride, whether she liked it or not. At the end she was on her knees reciting the names of southern states that once were synonymous with racism. She was inspired to write this tune after viewing an exhibit of photos on the history of lynchings and Southern racism. The song drew to a close with the sounds of a banjo plucking out the cries of the many that died at the hands of hatred. It wasn't all seriousness though. The show featured fun and familiar tunes, too. Her first big solo single was the lighter than air "Carnival." This night's version had a mellowing, long instrumental that found Natalie twirling about the stage like a merry-go-round from the song's namesake. As the chorus kicked in she got her hips into it as she shook them to the groove, only occasionally missing a beat. She hasn't lost one bit of her sensuality. She has this unique and mesmerizing style as she skipped around the stage. "I don't feel at all ridiculous to be the only one standing in the room," she announced. "You don't find my behavior unusual? It makes me happy to make you happy." An obvious disappointed reaction that the audience didn't feel the same energy as she did. However, the mood quickly shifted as her fans instantly got into the 10,000 Maniacs classic "Hey Jack Kerouac." The once stoic audience instantly rose to their feet and began cheering with a renewed enthusiasm. With this the fans were officially awake.
It's the little things that makes her sex appeal shine in a very unique and classy way. It can be as simple as the way she holds the ends of her skirt and shakes it to the music or the sweet and realness of her smile. Next up was infectious "Wonder" from her sophomoric effort followed by "These Are Days." It was a rousing, electrified rendition that found Natalie envelope the song with her spacious and intimate voice. She then walked over, sat at the piano and coughed jokingly, "Excuse me, did anyone hear that. What else can I do as I catch my breath?" An audience member shouts out "I love you." "I can say I love you," Natalie replied. "I can say thank you...I've already said thank you....again and again." Soon after she caught her breath and performed "I'm Not Gonna Beg" from her new CD. Her voice rose as she proclaimed "There's nothing I want from you, nothing you can say or do." After the darkness went away the band kicked in a crazy surfer version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Unusual but fun as Natalie joined in doing funky "Pulp Fiction" Twist. "We have suffered a lot of loses in the past few months," she expressed changing the mood. "And this one made me particularly sad." The band delivered a beautiful rendition of George Harrison's "Something." It was a refreshing surprise with the lilting guitar work that would make the late Beatle proud. The show closed with a bittersweet version of "Thank You." A fitting end as she repeated the words over and over.
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