When it comes to artists, true artists in every aspect, few are as pure (and under-appreciated) as Natalie Merchant. Formerly known as the lead singer for 1980s college-rock phenom band 10,000 Maniacs (yes, they’re still around), Merchant built quite a cult following for herself after splitting with the Maniacs in 1993 and releasing her debut album, Tigerlily, with hits such as Carnival and Wonder.

I am among that cult following.

Since leaving her label Elektra in 2002, Merchant’s only album had been The House Carpenter’s Daughter, which resurrected many all-but-forgotten gospel and folk songs. However, up until recently, I had always regarded her 1998 release Ophelia as her best work.

After an eight-year hiatus from cutting any albums or touring at all, Merchant is back with Leave Your Sleep, which is sure to be considered her magnum opus for years to come.  In these eight years “off the map,” she focused on raising her daughter Lucia, and between Motherland and motherhood arose a creative curiosity in children’s poetry.

A week ago today was a very special day for a die-hard like me. I was able to catch not one, but TWO performances by Natalie Merchant in downtown Ann Arbor.

At the very last minute, she agreed to do a special noon in-store performance at Borders Bookstore 01. Lucky for me, this is about 5 or 6 blocks down the street from my office, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunch break than to watch one of my favorite artists perform for the first time in eight years in an intimate performance in a bookstore, with a special meet and greet afterwards.  Ann Arbor’s 107.1 hosted the event and broadcasted half the show on the air.

I only wish I thought enough at the time to write the entire setlist down in my BlackBerry, but was too captivated by the performance to think of anything else but how awesome it was to be there. I took a few shots with my phone, but AnnArbor.com has a nice gallery of that performance you should totally check out.

The Evening Show

The main show itself was . . . wow. For someone who has seen her as many times as I have throughout the years, I can tell you that it was much different than “the usual,” but in a good way. Overall, she collaborated with over a hundred musicians on Leave Your Sleep, all of whom are named in the liner notes of the album, and her live band was much different than she’s had it in the past. There was no drum kit, nor a keyboard/piano, but plenty of strings, including a cello, an upright bass, a banjo, a fiddle, the usual lead and rhythm guitars, a snare, and an accordion and a tuba thrown in for good measure.

The first half of her set was entirely composed of songs from Leave Your Sleep, and each song had an accompanying story about the poem it was grown from, along with slides of the poet and educational, sometimes amusing commentary beforehand by Ms. Merchant herself, on her research of the poet, the song, and how it came to be.

She opened the show with her adaptation of obscure poet Charles Edward Carryl’s poem The Sleepy Giant, about a giant who used to eat little boys and is now reformed, much to the relief of the little boy to whom giant is speaking.  From there she led into her adaptation of the classic Mother Goose The Man in the Wilderness, a song with a very classic Merchant-esque musical arrangement, in the same vein as her Motherland album.

Natalie Merchant is militant about not having audience members take photos during her shows. This was before it started.

However, the rest of the first half of the show was anything but classic Natalie Merchant musically. One of the things that stands out about Leave Your Sleep over her other albums is the amount of thought and research that went into every song, not only about the poem and the poet, but the time period in which they were written, the musical stylings that accompanied the era, and of course, her creative liberty to adapt the piece. In all of Merchant’s performances, she is not just a singer, but a full-out interpretive dancer to each and every song, and this show was no exception.

For example, not much is known about the British poem The King of China’s Daughter, whose author is unknown, however the song itself has a very classic Chinese sound to it, and in fact, she had some very talented Chinese musicians record the song with her for the album. She danced a hypnotic interpretation to the arrangement using a Chinese paper lantern as a prop and took you back to one of the ancient dynasties right there in the theatre.

In The Janitor’s Boy, by child prodigy Nathalia Crane, whose first book of poems (by the same name) was published at the age of 11 in 1924, Merchant appropriately adapts the poem to a very swanky, jazzy arrangement in the style of the 1920s, and glides across the stage as if to portray a sultry lounge singer.

She closed the Leave Your Sleep portion of the show with a haunting song entitled Equestrienne, by Rachel Field (1894 – 1942), a song so haunting it’ll linger with you hours later. Here’s a video of her doing the song at the Philadelphia show in April:

The encores. Oh the encores. . . .

. . . the encores began the second half of the show that night, where the majority of the audience would be a bit more familiar with the material, as she began with Life is Sweet and played other more-well-known hits such as Carnival, Wonder, and closed with Kind and Generous (typical). But it was a couple rare nuggets that she threw in that had old school fans like me in love with this show — she played Eat for Two, from her 10,000 Maniacs days, the lead track from Blind Man’s Zoo (1989). I can’t honestly remember the last time I saw her do this live, if ever, but . . . what a dramatic performance. She slowed the tempo down significantly from when she did it back-in-the-day, and the song was all the more intense with abrupt breaks at strategic intervals — if it gives you any indication, I literally watched this one with my mouth open and chills down my spine.

The other pleasant surprise? Don’t Talk, another 10,000 Maniacs-era one, from 1987’s In My Tribe album. I was very glad she threw in a couple of the really old songs for the die-hards, and all in all, I can’t say she’s lost any of her stage presence and/or zest over the years. Natalie Merchant is looking and sounding better than ever, and though she said she “won’t be coming back to Ann Arbor for many years to come,” I can only hope that isn’t true. She’s in a league of her own, one of the most seasoned singers, songwriters, and all-around true artists of our era, and it would be a shame to not see her again for another eight years.

Natalie Merchant Full Set List 7-27-10 Michigan Theatre, Ann Arbor

The Sleepy Giant
The Man in the Wilderness
The King of China’s Daughter
Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
Spring and Fall: to a young child
maggie and milly and molly and may
The Peppery Man
The Janitor’s Boy
Bleezer’s Ice-Cream
Adventures of Isabel
Calico Pie
If No One Ever Marries Me
The Dancing Bear
1st Encore:
Life is Sweet
Eat for Two
The Worst Thing
The Letter
2nd Encore:
Don’t Talk
Michael Row Your Boat Ashore (improv)
Kind & Generous

Here is a link to AnnArbor.com’s review of the show.