sat 21/09/2019

Natalie Merchant, Conway Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Natalie Merchant, Conway Hall

Natalie Merchant, Conway Hall

American folk rock icon strangely undercooked

To accomplish this project she has reportedly worked with a total of 130 musicians across many roots and world genres including blues, bluegrass, Dixeland jazz, Celtic folk and Balkan dance tunes. Her collaborators have ranged from the Wynton Marsalis Quintet to the Chinese Musical Ensemble of New York, the Klezmatics and the experimental funk jazz trio, Martin, Medeski and Wood.
The mention of “plus special guests” on the ticket implied that a smattering of these exotic helpers might be on hand for the UK debut of songs from Leave Your Sleep – but Merchant had other plans. She took to the stage accompanied by just two acoustic guitarists and an occasional cellist, seemingly determined wherever possible to play down both the scale and the seriousness of the work at hand. Anybody who heard her earnestly explaining herself on the Today programme yesterday morning would scarcely have recognised the larky character who turned up at the Conway Hall last night to delight a small, sell out crowd of diehard fans. Critics may have dubbed her “the Emily Dickinson of pop” and “an erotic schoolmarm”, but “the first lady of folk stand-up” might have been more appropriate to the Natalie Merchant who joked and jived her way through a 90-minute show that only hinted at the odyssey she’s been on since her semi-retirement in 2003.
She started as she meant to carry on, lampooning her decision to set verse by famous and not-so-famous poets to music. “This is a little thing I wrote with Robert Graves on Majorca in 1948,” she announced before singing “Vain and Careless”. Bantering the audience while issuing frequent instructions to her sidemen in between slugs on a large mug of tea, Merchant exuded an air of under-rehearsed contentment which turned to farce after a mix-up over the order of the verses in the ee cummings opus  “maggie and milly and molly and may”. This brought her giggling to her feet for some lively, reparative dancing - and a subsequent gear change as she reprised older material from her solo career.
Attentive though they had been to the sparsely arranged sung poems, the audience clearly preferred Merchant the way they remembered her, in more melodically robust, soft-rocking mode. As she gently wagged her finger through "Tell Yourself" and crouched down for "Build a Levee" – two of the standout songs from her 2001 album Motherland – you could hear why she has become such a respected icon of independent femininity. The gorgeous, stately burr of her voice had lost none of its charm and authority and – whisper it – actually sounded better when applied to simpler and more direct lyrics written by herself than those she’s chosen to sing on Leave Your Sleep.
Maybe the new stuff just needs more of the supporting oomph it’s presumably had in the studio. Merchant seemed to acknowledge this when she returned to poetry for the final part of the show. Introducing “Janitor’s Boy”, a piece written in the 1920s by Nathalie Crane, a 10-year-old girl from Brooklyn, she went out of her way to plug the importance of the Dixieland arrangement on the record. At this the audience perked up and started shouting out questions, requesting tunes by her old band 10,000 Maniacs, and asking her when she’d be returning to the UK. Merchant never appeared more comfortable all night than when she was dealing with these inquiries, and a concert that had felt at times like a slightly undercooked experiment ended with a warm buzz of friendly togetherness.
Natalie Merchant's future dates available here.

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