Ahh, Natalie, Natalie...
Ahh, Natalie. How much we love you. With the folk-pop act, 10,000 Maniacs, you were catapulted to stardom with your own brand of bittersweet melodies and socially-conscious lyrics. Through the nineties we watched your talent - along with your fan base - grow, as you made the move to solo artist. You honed your craft, and we listened to your voice deepen as it became seasoned through time, use and experience. And ohh, what a voice you have, Natalie. Those warm, buttery chords of yours that resonate deep in the soul. Both strong and fragile, the sounds from your lips are steeped in passion, playfulness and motherlylove. Your voice could make a grown man cry..
These are some of the thoughts running through my mind as I watched Natalie Merchant perform at the LaForet Museum in Harajuku, where the able songstress graced us with her presence for two wonderful hours. It was a full house, with every chair occupied and the well-dressed crowd spilling over onto the sides and back of the performance hall. With its wall-to-wall carpet and shiny, art-deco chairs, the LaForet Museum seemed more apt for a poetry reading than a musical event. It worked well, however. In contrast to the cold, hard appearance of many clubs in Tokyo, the museum had a warmer, more intimate feel more suited to Merchant's taste. What's more, there aren't too many concert halls where you feel comfortable enough to take off your shoes and dance in your socks.
The smiles didn't end for two hours, as Merchant took us through her discography, as well as add a surprise or two for good measure. Motherland, her most recent album and Tigerlily, her first, were the most prevalent during the performance, but a few tracks from Ophelia snuck their way in, along with two 10,000 Maniacs classics. The title track from Motherland opened the show, with banjo and acoustic guitar trickling out her accompaniment. Tigerlily's "Cowboy Romance" followed, after which Natalie slipped behind the piano for a somber moment, playing both "I'm Not Gonna Beg" and "Beloved Wife", accompanied by a weepy steel guitar. Afterwards, the pace quickened as Merchant took center-stage again, her pig tails coming unraveled as she danced and waved her skirt. Here, she performed hits from Tigerlily such as "San Andreas Fault", "Wonder" and "Carnival". "Put The Law On You" had an especially atmospheric quality to it, with her guitarists and drummer laying down an ethereal-cowboy twist. The big grins came out when the first chords of "Jack Keroac" were played. One of her first hits with the Maniacs, it seemed everyone there knew the tune and clapped along.
Surprisingly, there were very few people actually dancing. Since the show was set up more like a classical performance, with row after row of chairs and only one aisle through the center, there was little room to dance in front of the stage. Although some felt the need to move (including myself), the more reserved environment seemed appropriate. After all, Merchant's music is more introspective than electric, more literate than loud. It's no wonder that many remained seated with their eyes transfixed on her. That's not to say that they weren't enjoying themselves. There were smiles glued on to faces that nodded ever-so-slightly to the beat. It seemed at times that half the crowd was either singing along or mouthing the words silently to themselves.
By the time she performed a wrenching, reverb-laced version of "This House Is On Fire", her hair flailed about while she danced around the stage to eastern-sounding percussion. She then left the stage to the surprise (and disappointment) of all, since she had performed just over an hour. It wasn't long before she returned for one of two encores which matched her first stint in time and quality. After playing "Break Your Heart", she pulled out "These Are Days", from the Maniacs album, Our Time In Eden. A double-punch from Ophelia followed, and then she left the stage again, only to appear moments later behind the piano for a second, more melancholy version of "Beloved Wife". It was here that people pulled out their hankies as Merchant poured her heart out for us, while slowly entering a segue to her final number of the evening, "The Gulf Of Araby" (also found of the live album).
Overall, the show was deeply satisfying. It touched on all the emotional chords her music has struck over the years. She proved herself once again as a respected artist in her own right, as well as a big-sister to the new generation of singer-songwriters everywhere.
report by jason and photo by hanasan