Saturday Night: Natalie Merchant At Verizon Wireless Theater

Natalie Merchant Verizon Wireless Theater August 21, 2010

For more photos from Saturday's show, see our slideshow here.

Natalie Merchant must either have always had the patience of a saint or simply instilled it in herself upon deciding to open her current tour with 90 minutes of material from new LP Leave Your Sleep - about two dozen (if you buy the expanded version) children's-themed poems from the 19th and 20th centuries Merchant adapted and set to styles ranging from Renaissance-era early classical to Cajun and bluegrass.

Sounds like a regular Saturday-night party, right? Aftermath saw what can happen when an artist decides to go the new-material route at the expense of their better-known songs just recently, when a nearly sold-out House of Blues crowd grew increasingly fidgety and talkative (if never quite downright rude) while Cyndi Lauper did more than an hour of songs from her new blues album before finally firing off "Change of Heart," "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Time After Time" in the encore.

But Merchant proved up to the challenge, whether gently chiding a talkative back bar - which, by the way, wasn't the case at the bar near where our seats were; this was not a heavy-drinking crowd - or reassuring the impatient soul who yelled out for "Carnival" that "didn't I mention how happy you're going to be by the end of the night?" She wasn't wrong, obliging with an extended encore - featuring, naturally, "Carnival" and "Wonder" - and at one point sharing a hug with one fan that went on so long we started wondering if security was going to step in. (They didn't.)

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She seemed to also know exactly how many of Sleep's more solemn songs, like the haunting cello/recorder duet opener "The Sleepy Giant" and a gentle but exotic "King of China's Daughter," she and her midsize, mostly acoustic band could get away with before needing to pick up the tempo. "There's just one more of these delicate songs left," she promised after an especially somber "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child."

That one, she explained in the introduction, is based on a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about nine nuns who were killed in a shipwreck, and sounded as elegiac as its subject matter. Likewise, Aftermath isn't sure whether Merchant's fans were more aware of what they were about to see than Lauper's were, but the enthusiastic response that greeted Sleep's tuba-powered Russian/Balkan-gypsy waltz "The Dancing Bear" late in the set suggested as much, or just better-behaved in general.

For one thing, it was a seated show, which lends itself better to this sort of thing. And Merchant's introductions gave brief biographies of each author and anecdotes about the poem, which, combined with the slideshow going on, made Saturday feel as much like a graduate musicology seminar or perhaps an elaborately arranged music-studies major's doctoral-thesis recital as much as an actual concert.

Anyhow, after one more slow classical arrangement, of e.e. cummings' "maggie and millie and molly and may," the applause following each song became less polite and more raucous, the shouted-out requests for catalog tunes began to slack off and the energy in the room picked up noticeably as Merchant and her band steered into styles from a more recent era - if you can call ragtime, Dixieland and bluegrass recent, that is.

Be that as it may, a sitar-y flourish kicked off a strutting, swinging arrangement of "The Peppery Man" that, besides being pound for pound Aftermath's favorite song of the evening, was close enough to Tom Waits' catalog to make us wonder if perhaps Merchant should give him a call. It also kicked off a string of uptempo Sleep songs: "Janitor's Boy" and "Bleezer's Ice-Cream," both of which had a happy-go-lucky New Orleans vibe; Cajun fais-do-do "Isabel," to which our only critical response was a :) emoticon - OK, maybe that one was our favorite - and bluegrassy "Calico Pie."

Then, as promised, came the familiar songs. A dark, Latin-tinged arrangement of "Carnival" and bright-eyed take on 10,000 Maniacs' "Hey Jack Kerouac" stood out most to us, but the multitude of "We love you Natalies!" stood out even more. By this point, all was definitely forgiven, if any fences between Merchant and her audience indeed needed to be mended in the first place.

Personal Bias: Aftermath was a pretty big 10,000 Maniacs fan way, way back in the day, but until reading about the story behind Leave Your Sleep in The New York Times earlier this year, more or less lost touch with Merchant after the ubiquitous Tigerlily singles.

The Crowd: Heavily 30s and 40s, some shorts and sandals, some dressier. Also looked like as big a date night for female couples as Lauper was for males.

Overheard In the Crowd: "We can go up to the front row and no one's gonna notice" - but honestly (and thankfully), not much else.

Random Notebook Dump: Based on "Calico Pie" and "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow," which opened that extended encore, Merchant could probably make a damn good bluegrass album.

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