Jemal Countess/Getty Images
The summer concert tour is usually a safe, predictable exercise. Popular artists can be counted upon to trot out a string of familiar hits, fueling an outpouring of easy memories and nostalgia for concertgoers, especially at outdoor concert venues with their available alcohol and summer-party-time vibe.
Natalie Merchant seemed to be heading down the usual summer tour path last week when she played a concert for more than 4,000 people at the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in suburban Seattle. The 46-year-old singer with the distinctive amber voice opened her show with a half-dozen songs familiar from her Tigerlily solo career that followed her lead singer days with the popular indie band, 10,000 Maniacs. The August sun continued to set behind the sloping hillside filled with picnickers, and a steady stream of latecomers entered the reserved seating via an aisle in front of the stage, at first unnerving Merchant until she brought her characteristic humor to bear, directly addressing some transgressors: "You missed five songs! How does that make you feel? No, I'm kidding—you only missed three."
Preliminaries aside, Merchant soon launched into the evening's primary focus—a show-and-sing multi-media presentation about, believe it or not, poets and poetry. Black-and-white portraits of poets, both American and British, some well-known (Gerald Manley Hopkins, e.e. Cummings), many obscure (Nathalia Crane, Arthur Macy) appeared on a giant screen behind Merchant and her band. Merchant offered an informed biographical sketch of each member of her (mostly) Dead Poet's Society, as well as a glimpse of the poem that inspired her to write an accompanying song, the first time in her 28-year career when her songwriting did not include her own lyrics.
"This has been a seven-year project for me since my daughter was born," Merchant related. "I initially thought of doing a lullaby album, but that didn't work out. I ended up instead with a thematic work about childhood and motherhood using the words of these poets that I had discovered."
MORE ON SUMMER CONCERTS:
Alyssa Rosenberg: Songs in a Key of Life: On Seeing Robyn in Concert
Hampton Stevens: How Matisyahu's Hasidic Reggae Music Made Me Cry
Merchant's intro from the stage only hinted at the labor and expense that had turned a nursing mother's inspiration into a "consuming" project that would ultimately result in a 26-song double album supplemented by an 80-page bound booklet filled with Merchant's musings on each of the poets whose work inspired her new songs. Leave Your Sleep, released in April, involved five years of research and songwriting for Merchant, plus an entire year of recording with so many groups and individuals that the number would eventually total more than 100—and all this financed by the artist herself, the album's projected budget getting busted time and again. That this monster project was taking place in an era of single-song, iPod sampling suggested boldness in extreme on Merchant's part. Her against-the-current creative vision probably verged toward it's-my-choice obstinacy, as did the notion of turning a wine-soaked summer concert into a quasi-tutorial on various poets.