Photo: Jackob Blickenstaff / Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

Taking It to Church: A Summer Evening with Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant concludes her 2018 summer tour of "intimate and historic" locations in the UK with a warm and spellbinding show at Oxford's St. John the Evangelist church.

The last time that Natalie Merchant performed in the UK was two years ago, on a tour in support of the 20th anniversary of her first solo album Tigerlily, which had just been released in a re-recorded version with an accompanying documentary film. That tour, which found Merchant fronting a full band, included a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall which blossomed, after a slightly shaky start, into a radiant evening. An abiding memory of the concert is of Merchant skipping exuberantly up and down the steps of the Hall, carried away by emotion as she performed “Life Is Sweet”.

Merchant’s fondness for performing in the UK has now resulted in a new venture: a two-week, small-scale summer tour of “intimate and historic” British venues that’s taken her from Ilkley to Exeter, Buxton to Brighton. “I’ve rarely played outside of the major cities [and] there’s so much of Britain that I’ve never seen,” Merchant has said. “I expect this tour will satisfy my desire to explore these historic and scenic regions while meeting up with my fans who live there.”

So, apparently, it has proved. The series of shows concluded on Monday night at Oxford’s St. John the Evangelist church (SJE Arts), and, as Merchant listed the various places that she’d visited on a tour that she wryly described as “a holiday”, it was clear that her fondness for the UK had only deepened. While perfectly capable of commanding a bigger space, Merchant thrived in the intimate setting of the church, where she seemed perfectly at home. Accompanying her was her longtime guitarist Erik Della Penna, who worked brilliantly throughout the evening, the pair’s deep rapport evident from the outset. With no new album to promote, Merchant was at liberty to range widely across her body of work, and the often surprising set-list touched all of her solo studio recordings, as well as a couple of 10,000 Maniacs tracks, combining classics with deep album cuts. (Who would have anticipated hearing the wonderful “Golden Boy” from 2001’s Motherland, for example?)

Merchant has, perhaps undervalued, worked in a wide variety of musical styles over the years, never more so than on Leave Your Sleep, her masterful 2010 double album which set a range of 19th and 20th century poetry to music that encompassed everything from Cajun, country, and classical to jazz, reggae, and Chinese traditions. But, stripped back to just voice and guitar, her music revealed its folk roots on Monday night. If the quality of any song is in part determined by its ability to work when performed with the most minimal of instrumentation then Merchant’s music more than passed that test, with several songs sounding more like themselves than ever in their spare arrangements here.

The opening part of the show was heavy on Leave Your Sleep material, including beautiful takes on Robert Graves’s “Vain and Careless”, Laurence Alma-Tadema’s “If No-one Ever Marries Me” (“a little feminist manifesto”, as Merchant described it), and Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall (To a Young Child)” which reduced Merchant to tears. “Maggie Said”, from her 2014 eponymous release, was spellbinding, Merchant leaning into the chorus emphatically and giving the song a grave dramatic power.

As the evening progressed, Merchant loosened up, and if her characteristic dervish movements were limited by the space, she still found ways to be physical, taking several walks down the aisles at various points and shaking her hips with party-girl verve. The mid-section selection of “Break Your Heart”, “Build a Levee”, and “Saint Judas” had soulful momentum, while Katell Keineg joined in for a surprise reunion on a lilting, funky “Carnival” as well as a haunting take on her self-penned “The Gulf of Araby”. “Tell Yourself” was buoyant, but “River”, by contrast, felt painfully private and interior, Merchant bowing her head as she became overwhelmed by the emotion of the song.

Finally, as Della Penna disappeared for a well-deserved break, Merchant took to the keyboard in the now-darkening church. There may have been a collective sigh of relief when she decided to abandon Motherland‘s rather precious “Henry Darger” and launched instead into a passionate version of “Wonder”, followed by “I’m Not Gonna Beg” and “My Skin”, each of which took on a beautiful hymnal quality here. (Earlier Merchant had pointed out how performing in several churches on this tour had made her belatedly aware of the amount of religious references in her songs.)

Avoiding direct political commentary up to this point, during the encore Merchant took the opportunity to refer to “the drunk driver” currently in charge of the United States and her hopes for a mid-term shift, prefacing a sharp rendition of the folky anthem of entitlement “Texas” with the remark: “We’ve actually now become nostalgic for the Bush administration…” Keineg joined in again on a lovely “Weeping Pilgrim” while Merchant stood on a chair to deliver “Kind and Generous” as a thank you to the audience, inviting a young girl from the front row to accompany her. “It’s the last night of the tour… we’re not going to be special any more, Erik,” Merchant deadpanned, referring to the motherly duties awaiting her back in the States. What’s certain, though, is that, in these beautiful surroundings, Merchant and Della Penna succeeded in creating an exceedingly special summer evening indeed.