Paradise Is Here: Natalie Merchant’s Radiant Music Lit up London’s Royal Albert Hall
Dervish twirls, anti-Trump sentiments, and a fantastic set-list made for a triumphant start to the European leg of Natalie Merchant’s 2016 Paradise Is There tour.
“There’s a picture backstage of a suffragette holding a whip,” Natalie Merchant noted approvingly towards the end of her radiant show at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday night. “There’s clearly a militant faction here.”
While never averse to social or political comment on stage, or to humanitarian activism off of it, Merchant herself is no forbidding whip-wielder as a performer. On the contrary, she’s an artist who creates an exceptionally open, generous and inclusive ambience for her audience, ushering us in gently and then changing our perspectives through the character portraits and narratives that make up her best songs.
The last time I saw Merchant on stage in London was at an intimate show at Farringdon’s Free Word Centre in late 2009. There, accompanied by a small band on a tiny stage, Merchant previewed material from her poetry-inspired masterwork, Leave Your Sleep (2010), excitedly exclaiming “He’s hot!” while holding up pictures of the likes of Robert Graves. Wednesday’s show was the first European date in support of Merchant’s latest release Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, an album which revisits her 1995 solo debut, capturing the way the songs have expanded and evolved over two decades of live performance.
The contrast between the two venues could hardly have been more marked, and Merchant initially seemed a bit overwhelmed by the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall (where she hasn’t played since 2002). The opening song “Maggie Said” (from her self-titled 2014 album) got restarted twice, as Merchant forgot the words to the second verse (“What was it Maggie said…?!”), attributing the slip-up to a rare case of nerves.
The mistake was endearing, though, and when Merchant and her band did accomplish the song, the rueful sentiments of the lyrics (“Holding back, what did I get for all of that? / …Nothing, oh, nothing, that’s a fact”) seemed somehow the perfect opener for a show that loosened up and thawed out beautifully after a rather reserved opening. “As well as being intimidating, this is really fun!” Merchant announced in the second half. “I guess many life experiences are like that: a lot of different emotions coming at you all at once.”
Drawing deeply on the wide range of her post-10,000 Maniacs solo work, the songs that Merchant performed also covered a lot of diverse emotional terrain. A superb band comprising Erik Della Penna (guitar), Uri Sharlin (piano/accordion), Logan Coale (bass), Allison Miller (drums), Karen Waltuch (viola) Eleanor Norton (cello), and Marandi Hostetter and Megan Gould (violins), made all of the material sound fresh, rich and textured, with rock, folk, classical, world and chamber music elements dynamically commingling, and with more striking rhythmic shifts than were apparent on the studio versions of some of the songs.
Elegant in black, and in robust, commanding voice throughout, Merchant’s sensuous, shamanic movements became more uninhibited as the evening progressed. Removing her cardigan and letting her long, greying hair down, flicking her skirts like a flamenco pro, she spun and twirled like a dervish on a sultry jazz-cabaret treatment of “The Worst Thing”, pounded her hands on her hips during a percussive passage in “Frozen Charlotte”, swayed trance-like to the strings on “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child”, vibrated with cathartic release on a sensational “Seven Years”, and skipped up and down the venue's steps on a soaring “Life Is Sweet”, before tearily returning centre-stage, overwhelmed by the emotion that this particular song evoked.
Confessing herself to be “embarrassed and scared by what’s happening in the States right now”, Merchant also took the opportunity to direct two songs Trump-wards, with a stinging rendition of “Saint Judas” followed by the chilling (originally Bush-inspired) folky anthem of entitlement “Texas”. “The songs of unbridled greed and bigotry just keep coming,” Merchant deadpanned, before subverting that statement with the hope for comfort and restoration expressed in “Motherland”.
The most enthusiastic audience responses were generally reserved for the older songs (such as “Carnival”, with Katell Keineg helping out on harmonies). But it’s worth noting that the newer material also shone brightly, especially the mesmeric slow build of the ode to renunciation “Giving Up Everything”, while a highly emotional rendition of Charles Causley’s “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” was the pick of the Leave Your Sleep material. Closing the show with the crowd-pleasing three-song encore of “Break Your Heart”, “Wonder” and “Kind & Generous”, Merchant then took the opportunity to hug audience members in the front row, a gracious gesture that encapsulated the spirit of a rich and loving evening that made everyone present feel embraced.