Oftentimes when a pop artist joins forces with an orchestra, the results are fairly standard: add brass to the poppy numbers, timpani for drama and a bath of strings to maximize the notes of sorrow. Formulaic, perhaps, but not altogether unpleasant. However, there are a few times when the collaboration bears a sum much greater than its constituent parts, in which orchestra and singer weave a synaesthetic grandeur that is utterly enthralling. A night in which songs change shape, recreated in new arrangements that reveal a profundity and richness that hitherto remained unseen. Natalie Merchant
’s show with the San Francisco Symphony (beautifully led by conductor James Bagwell) last week was one of those nights. Playing to a sold out crowd at the lovely Davies Symphony Hall, Merchant took the stage promptly at 8PM, dressed in a demure satin gown with bright red shawl, and sporting a head full of grey hair-- a sight that was fairly unexpected, given that her jet black hair has always been such a hallmark of her image. For a moment, she looked like a different woman than the one the audience had come to hear, but those fears were overturned after the first few notes she sung during opener “The Land of Nod.” To be fair, the song hadn’t changed much from its recorded version, found on Merchant’s last record Leave Your Sleep
(2010) -- a collection of 26 poems about or by children set to music -- but it aptly set the tone for the evening.
“Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” followed, and both Merchant and the Symphony sounded comfortable with the arrangement, thereby allowing each other to push and pull with the rhythm in a way that kept the song fairly buoyant. They proceeded with “Life is Sweet,” off of 1998’s Ophelia
, which while it’s a Natalie Merchant classic and sounded perfectly glamorous with the orchestral setting, felt like a bit of a missed opportunity, since Natalie very rarely chose to go for the higher notes and instead relied on singing the harmonies for many of the powerful parts of the songs. Perhaps they could have rearranged “Break Your Heart,” “Thick as Thieves” or “My Skin” if they wanted to represented the album.
No one was expecting what would happen in the next piece, though, especially considering the slightly shaky beginning to the evening. When “Beloved Wife” began, many clapped, having recognized it from 1995’s Tigerlily
, but what ensued was one of the most vital and evocative performances of a song I’ve seen Natalie perform. It’s always been an emotional piece, and a tribute to Merchant’s grandparents, but this was a total transformation. The Symphony swelled in just the right parts, playing a number of new descants and counterpoint melodies that added incredible depth to the song, but it was Merchant’s oscillation between fierce chest voice and fragile breathiness that were the key to the magic. At one point, she even brushed away tears, and it was audible-- she’d put her whole heart into the performance and there were few in the audience who weren’t moved to tears as well.
The two orchestral reinventions from Merchant’s time in 10,000 Maniacs were well chosen and intriguing pieces: “Gold Rush Brides” (made even more poignant by California entering the story of Gold Rush migration) and “Verdi Cries.” The latter was one of the highlights of the evening, which while her voice cracked at a certain point (said to have been caused by the presence of air conditioning-- something Merchant doesn’t usually perform with), was utterly breathtaking and mesmerizing. New song “Butterfly” also was a bit of a surprise, since it’s been years and years since audiences have been treated to new Natalie Merchant material. It’s an orchestral piece without a hugely accessible melodic hook, but it’s gorgeous, has an interesting interplay between major and minor chords in the verses and is certainly the logical extension of the Leave Your Sleep
pieces that featured string instruments.
The setlist was a bit odd, to be honest, given that Merchant has had so many big hits both nationally and abroad. While many still label her as the frontwoman of 10,000 Maniacs exclusively, she’s had considerable success on radio over the past 25 years, so to choose very few of those pieces to reinterpret with an orchestra seemed a slight missed opportunity. Definitely the sets with the SF Symphony provided the audience with stunning transformations of all eras of her career, and maybe some more obscure pieces like “She Devil” and “The Worst Thing” allowed concertgoers the chance to be unencumbered and not have their attention diverted by singing along, but it would have been equally enjoyable to see “Carnival,” “San Andreas Fault,” “Don’t Talk,” “Jezebel” and “Trouble Me” with an orchestra.
The encore section, done just with guitarist Gabriel Gordon and pianist Uri Sharlin, was mighty different than the set with the San Francisco Symphony, but it was in many ways equally, if not more, entertaining. Natalie visibly (and audibly) relaxed at this point, constantly joking with Gabriel about all sort of things, including keys of songs, dynamics and lyrics. It also came across as delightfully off the cuff, and Merchant often invited audience members to sing and clap along. Hearing “Hey Jack Kerouac” in San Francisco was especially wonderful, but really every song in the encore section was a huge hit with the crowd. Merchant voice boomed with conviction and splendidly recreated these songs everyone has head hundreds of times, making them feel fresh and brand new.
Criticisms aside, this was a truly special night, and Natalie Merchant remains one of the most engaging, talented and exceptional artists of her time. She may have alienated many recently with her explorations of literature, poetry and folk music over the past ten years, but her voice is so remarkable, her phrasing so poignant and the quality of her material so impressive that it’s a joy to see her still performing her thirty year-old catalogue. Add that to the staggering ability and raw brilliance of the San Francisco Symphony and you have a combination that is simply world-class. Hopefully Natalie Merchant will continue to perform these orchestral shows, because they are reminders of her engaging aesthetic and vivid artistry. SET I (w/ the San Francisco Symphony)
The Land of Nod
Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
Life is Sweet
Gold Rush Brides
maggie and milly and molly and may
Butterfly (new song)
Spring and Fall: to a young child
This House is on FireIntermissionSET II (w/ the SF Symphony)
The Man in the Wilderness
The Sleepy Giant
The Worst ThingEncore (without SF Symphony)
Hey Jack Kerouac
These Are Days Encore 2: (without SF Symphony)
Build a Levee / Don’t Talk / Tell Yourself (medley)
Kind and Generous