Stirring, Spunky and Sublime: Natalie Merchant enchants the crowd at Big Day Out

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Natalie Merchant | Photo by Chris Sikich | countfeed.tumblr.com
Natalie Merchant | Photo by Chris Sikich | countfeed.tumblr.com

World Café Live played host to WXPN’s annual benefit Big Day Out on Saturday. After an auction and wine-tasting to raise money for the station, the four-hour event was capped by a performance by Natalie Merchant. Focusing on songs from her forthcoming self-titled album, which will be her first full release of original material in 13 years, Merchant put on a glorious performance that was recorded for a World Café session to be aired in May.

Backed by a string quartet, a pianist and three other instrumentalists (including drummer Allison Miller, doing double duty as she played with Amy Ray at World Café Live in the evening), Merchant began the show with the brilliant-sounding “The End.” It featured the strings, which Merchant was conducting while singing. About three to four minutes in, she halted the song due to a sharp, distracting sound emanating from one of the speakers. She said if it had been a regular show, it would have been a problem, but since this was a taping, they would try it again later. (They unfortunately did not return to the song).

World Cafe host David Dye stepped in with some questions and then “Lulu” took off, a song about silent-screen star Louise Brooks. Early on in “Lulu,” Merchant stopped again, asking what someone was flashing in her eye — a light from a cellphone camera, apparently. She then restarted the song and stirred the audience once again.

Was Merchant rattled by the sound and crowd issues? Certainly not. The band played four more unique songs, two of them twice (“Ladybird” and “Texas”) as Merchant was quite excited by their sound, especially since they had not performed them live before. Twirling about, her gray hair catching World Café’s purple lights, the singer was having a blast. And her voice has not lost any of its beautiful punch; it was as one-of-a-kind and stirring as ever. The Philly crowd certainly showed their love for the new work with hearty applause, even if they wanted some of her classics; one person asked if Merchant would play “Wonder,” to which she tartly replied: “Request lines are not open.”

Merchant did lose patience with cellphones, however, as she confiscated multiple phones (even getting help from Dye) between “Texas” and Ophelia’s “Kind & Generous,” an apt ending for Big Day Out. Asking why it could not still be 1998, when people did not feel the need to be on phones and take pictures all the time, she took a stance rarely taken by performers at a show. And the crowd seemed to be fine with it, as they were joyously partaking in the familiarity of an old tune.

Though something old is always appreciated, Merchant is not done enchanting our ears and souls with her sublime musical skills, as her new songs sound as good as anything she has ever written.

Setlist
The End
Lulu
Giving Up Everything
Ladybird
Texas
Kind & Generous

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  • DuarteAyala

    I appreciate Chris Sikich’s more-or-less accurate review. Here’s my take on Ms. Merchant’s performance:

    As a huge fan, I really wanted to like Natalie Merchant last Saturday at Big Day Out. Unfortunately, the feedback during the first song appeared color the entire set. After Part 1 of David’s interview and into her second song, a member of the audience (stage right) was apparently trying to take her picture…with a flash. Natalie abruptly stopped singing and asked the person why he was shining a light in her face. (Oh, boy.) The “confiscation” of the cell phones near the end of her performance was odd and sad. I was not laughing with her…I was laughing at her. Natalie referred to herself as a “perfectionist.” (I can think of several less flattering adjectives.) At one point someone yelled the name of one of her (older) songs. (I couldn’t tell which one.) Natalie replied something like “I haven’t put out an album in a dozen years and you want to her that!? Come to a concert to hear it.” (I’m paraphrasing.) I for one won’t risk spending money on a performance by her. I’ll stick to the memories I have with her older recordings.

    P.S. The rest of Big Day Out was fine. Next year, I hope a less temperamental artist gets booked.

    • Debra

      I was there yesterday…Let me add this.. A few weeks ago I was at the free at noon concert to see St. Vincent. A fantastic show.. NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED! Period! So beautiful and all I have are memories. Natalie was still sound checking when it was time for the doors to open “let them in” she said. We did go in and got to see her as a real person tweaking her thing in “greyhound bus” attire! It was also her first time singing her new songs live for the first time in 13 years! How lucky were we! The show was being taped, but it would also be edited for broadcasting later in May. Natalie wanted it to perfect and fun. Some thought that she was being too ridged. She said that some phones with flash were being distracted. And they were! She disrupted her performance several, many times to collect phones, but as my husband noted, before she gave them back she did a selfy!.. It was so much fun to see it all happen right before my eyes..and Let me tell you something! Natalie”s voice has matured and is still beautiful and has no match after all these 13 years!

      • Deb goodyear

        Just a reminder.. We were not at a concert, we were at a recording of her World Cafe session with David..doing the session with 200 plus people distracting you is no ease feat.

        • Ryan

          If it was too distracting for her, she didn’t have to do it…

    • Carne Asada

      Less temperamental artist? I was hoping for a more civilized audience who knew how to conduct themselves in public. Maybe they’ll all flick lighters, scream and vomit next year!

  • Kevin Dougherty

    She was awesome… I don’t know who would come on the comment page and try and ‘bash’ the performance… If anything, the guy yelling into the microphone during the auctions probably caused the feedback during her first song… and she was having fun with the phones… if she wasn’t cool, she woulda had the guy escorted out… he was asked multiple times… great new songs, great voice… cant wait til May!

  • Joe

    Being part of the audience that got to hear Natalie and the other great musicians perform new songs for the first time live was a truly unforgettable experience. It was great to watch as her voice and the songs got better and better. She was wonderful and handled some rude distractions in a unique and humorous way. The guy who bashed the show just doesn’t get it. I have already ordered the CD in advance and can’t wait to get it.

  • Brande Plotnick

    We were there, too and we had a lovely time. That said, I did think the beginning of the show was a little awkward. I was afraid to crunch the ice in my mouth for fear of being scolded for distracting Ms. Merchant! After so many years of performing, I would think she wouldn’t be so easily distracted. It’s not a concert, BUT we were still the audience – an audience that will potentially buy the new album and attend concerts and I felt she acted a little…egocentric. The scolding, the playing of some songs twice, etc. Her voice is still one of the best I’ve heard and we enjoyed her new songs very much. I guess I just wanted to like her a bit more.

  • Ronna Belgarde

    She is sort of a soul doctor. I have to tell you, when I need a doctor, I want one that knows what they are doing. One that doesn’t spare my feelings. One that can cut the cancer out and worry about the disfigurement later. I, for one, would not go to a Natalie Merchant concert to be entertained. I don’t choose my doctor on whether or not they are entertaining. Art is not about entertainment. It is about soul saving. The doctor doesn’t care about you in the way you would like to believe. Yes, she sees everything about you. Your tired heart, your weaken limb, your weary brow but she has to see it – It is her job. She is doing her job. Her choiceless job. If her bedside manner is lacking (and it is, I’ve been to her concerts) it makes no difference to me. I’m not paying her enough to do what she has to do.