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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."
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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.
And yet, it worked—in wondrous ways. Merchant's commentary on the poets was informal, filled with gentle humor that often played off their starchy oldtime portraits. Setting songs to established poetry might suggest somnolent, reverential treatments, a musical version of Ambien. But what Merchant provided on stage was a tour de force through a host of musical genres that included New Orleans, Chinese, Jazz Age, Celtic, R & B, bluegrass. Even more surprising, there was often no way to guess what style of music would have been inspired by a poet introduced on stage. Merchant's experimentations took boundless leaps and somersaults, keeping the audience constantly off-guard, utterly unsettled but in an intriguing way.
There were laughs and cheers and hoots as Merchant performed Jack Prelutsky's "Bleezer's Ice Cream" with its rollicking references to such flavors as "Cocoa Mocha Macaroni," "Tutti-Fruitti Stewed Tomato," "Sukiyaki Soccotash." There were outbreaks of dancing when Merchant turned Arthur Macy's "The Peppery Man" into a full-throttle blues rocker. And people clapped along when Albert Bigelow Paine's "The Dancing Bear" was transformed into an irresistible Jewish folk song, complete with a "fiddle-de-dum, fiddle-de-dee" chorus unlikely to be heard at any other major artist's 2010 summer concert.
Merchant proved a beguiling stage presence throughout this dazzling outpouring. She was conservatively dressed in shawl, blouse, knee-length skirt, white stockings, high-heeled Mary Jane's, as if she were attending some semi-formal high school dance. She was conservative as well in her stage movements, her hands at times subtlely conducting the expert musicians behind her, or sometimes she broke into impromptu little dances, a jig at one point, the twist another, her long dark hair sashaying around her head. The upstate New York native gave few hints of her rock band roots or that she is a latecomer to verse, as she has admits in the booklet accompanying her CD.
Natalie Merchant's Magical Mystery Poetry Tour continued through 13 straight songs with no intermission, a 90-minute high-wire act without safety net. There followed an encore of seven songs, familiar hits offered as a well-earned reward for the Seattle audience's perseverance and support, even answering a request for "Hey Jack Kerouac," the 10,000 Maniacs' anthem that Merchant said she and her hesitant bandmates had not played live for a decade. The whole summer concert could have been filled with such crowd-pleasing songs, as was probably expected by many, but Merchant truly earned her lingering standing ovations for something far rarer—an artist's creative and courageous venture into new territory altogether.