For a tour entitled “3 Decades Of Song” supporting “The Natalie Merchant Collection” (a brand new ten-disc box set), one would expect its namesake to not only dig into her treasure trove of overlooked cuts and rarities, but also address at least a significant chunk of her many hits. Though she amply checked the boxes of the former two categories, Merchant was somewhat stingy on the familiar, which between an acclaimed solo career and 10,000 Maniacs before that, sure did add up to a sizeable body of work.
The second half picked up steam with a rhythmically re-imagined “Carnival” (enhanced by Merchant’s charming dance steps and twirls), alongside the enormous “Wonder,” yet those were two of just four cuts from 1995’s five-times platinum “Tigerlily” debut.
Granted, Merchant’s never been particularly nostalgic nor does she seem even remotely concerned with commercial expectations, as evidenced in a time not all that long ago when she came to the Chicago Theatre armed with a batch of nursery rhymes (or the folk songs that came before those). This time through the same hallowed hall, the attendance was noticeably improved, but the trend continued of the poetic singer/songwriter marching to her own muse rather than the radio dial.
Then again, Merchant has an extremely dedicated listener pool who’ve stuck with her since the very beginning and they mostly appeared pleased with a first half spent flying somewhat under the radar, including stunning renditions of “Lulu,” “Ophelia,” the group’s “Gold Rush Brides,” “Break Your Heart” and “Life Is Sweet,” followed by an informational plea to end fracking once and for all from a fella with the Food & Water Action Fund. After all, the 53-year-old artist’s voice was downright flawless regardless of each track’s general recognition level, while her four-piece band and string quartet were both equally flawless.
The second half picked up steam with a rhythmically re-imagined “Carnival” (enhanced by Merchant’s charming dance steps and twirls), alongside the enormous “Wonder,” yet those were two of just four cuts from 1995’s five-times platinum “Tigerlily” debut (which was also re-recorded with fresh arrangements in 2015). And it wound up being “Hey Jack Kerouac,” one of just five Maniacs moments in the more than two-dozen song set, that coaxed everyone to their feet and truly tore the house down, though it would take nearly an hour for that jubilant mood to return.
Instead, Merchant turned back to the mellow, evoking beauty and tenderness throughout “Motherland,” the brand new “Butterfly” and many others, while also inviting a few female fans on stage to clumsily accompany her on a botched rendition of “Ladybird.” Yet as attendees shouted requests such as “Candy Everybody Wants,” the star quipped “we learned 40 songs for this tour and you might just have to be satisfied.”
She may not have given everyone exactly what they desired (including the sizeable individual selection “Jealousy,” 10,000 Maniacs’ “Trouble Me” or the smash Patti Smith cover “Because The Night”), but at least her previous band’s “These Are Days” did spark another blissful reaction. It’s just too bad the mood was temporarily halted by Merchant’s scolding an audience member that their videotaping was inhibiting her freedom to simply be herself, although to her defense, repeated warnings were posted and announced prior to the performance.
The evening also had its fair share of Merchant’s political and social commentaries, plus an off-hand comment that many young people she meets say they saw her as their first ever concert. She added it will be a lot less embarrassing than admitting Justin Bieber was their first show someday (so true) and that they could be proud of having seen Merchant before she died just like older folks these days might boast of having caught Ella Fitzgerald.
As immensely talented as Merchant is, “The First Lady Of Song” she is not, but after two-and-half-hours, the sublime finale “Kind And Generous” definitely lived up to its moniker as far as length is concerned. Now if only this retrospective could’ve found a better balance between the material that actually made this veteran famous in the first place and what she prefers to perform these days, “3 Decades Of Song” could’ve been a perfect title too.
For additional information on Natalie Merchant, visit NatalieMerchant.com.
For a list of upcoming Live Nation shows, visit LiveNation.com.
Upcoming concert highlights at The Chicago Theatre include “The Art Of Rap” Tour (Jul. 22); Bring It! Live (Jul. 28); Lyle Lovett And His Large Band (Jul. 29); Mary J. Blige (Jul. 30); Alphaville (Aug. 6); Van Jones (Aug. 8); Idina Menzel (Aug. 12); Belle And Sebastian (Aug. 16); Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson (Aug. 19) and 2 Chainz (Aug. 26). For additional details, visit TheChicagoTheatre.com.