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.