Jul. 16, 2010
Review by David Chiu
Natalie Merchant made a very poetic return to performing on stage after a seven-year hiatus–literally.
Her latest work, Leave Your Sleep, takes poetry written by others (such as Edward Lear, Gerard Manley Hopkins and e.e. cummings) and reinterprets them as songs with Merchant composing the music.
Half of the set performed at Town Hall on Friday, the second of a two-night stand, were devoted to a selection of songs from Leave Your Sleep. Accompanied by a large ensemble of musicians that included woodwind players, a banjo player and a fiddler, Merchant introduced each selection by describing the poem and the poet before launching into the song (There was an image of the poet projected on the screen).
Admittedly the set started out very subdued and gentle with a few songs, including the pastoral-sounding “The Man in the Wildreness” (from Mother Goose), the somber “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience,” and the balladry of Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.”
But the mood gradually picked up considerably through stylstically-diverse tunes: Arthur Macy’s “The Peppery Man” mirrored that of a Tom Waits tune with its smoky blues stylings; Nathalia Crane’s “The Janitor’s Boy” modeled itself after a 1920’s jazzy number. “Bleezer’s Ice Cream,” written by Jack Prelusky, was a whimsical highlight recalling the ‘60s Brill Building sound.
Merchant and her band returned to the stage for the encore, which drew on some of her previous non-Leave Your Sleep work such as “Gold Rush Brides,” “Carnival” and “Kind and Generous”; the second encore was a performance of “The Letter.”
The mostly boomer-crowd–40 somethings and older–were treated to some excellent and exquisite musicianship from the singer’s large band, who juxtaposed both elegiac and jubilant sounds. As for Merchant, the time off in which she devoted to her recent project haven’t diminished her distinctive singing. She chatted with the audience with a sense of humor and alternated between dancing and playing percussion.
The highlight of the evening was a non-musical one. Before performing Edward Lear’s “Calico Pie,” Merchant asked for someone with an English accent to read some lines of Lear’s poetry onstage. Instead she picked a guy with a Brooklyn accent who volunteered to do the deed. The lucky fellow, named George from Williamsburg, got up on stage and took on the work of Lear. It was interesting to see a tall large stocky guy in shorts standing next to Merchant sharing some lighthearted banter.
The verdict on Merchant’s second Town Hall appearance from the weekend: elegant and musically-rich.
The Sleepy Giant
The Man in the Wilderness
The King of China’s Daughter
Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
Spring and Fall to a Young Child
Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
The Peppery Man
The Janitor’s Boy
Bleezer’s Ice Cream
Adventures of Isabel
If No One Ever Marries Me
The Dancing Bear
The Worse Thing
Gold Rush Brides
Break Your Heart
Kind and Generous