Natalie Merchant shows off new songs, new band

by Susan Zieger | 11/21/94 6:00am

Natalie Merchant's sold-out Friday night performance was less a concert than an informal evening of music during which the singer, formerly of the 10,000 Maniacs, experimented with new songs.

"You're the guinea pigs," she told the audience, who seemed more than happy to hear the unreleased work that Merchant has written since the dissolution of her band.

Merchant, who complained lightly of a cold, sat at a keyboard and sipped tea through the first third of the show. The new songs were slow, powerful ballads about loss and love featuring unpredictable progressions that flaunt Merchant's stunning and unique voice.

Though strained by illness, the famed velvety vocal chords were in great shape. Similarly, the new band, consisting of Jennifer on guitar, Pete on bass and Barry on drums (Merchant didn't give out their surnames) was tight and jammed well on solo sections.

The mellow aura gave way when the band began a cover of Aretha Franklin's "Baby I Love You" and Merchant brought a student onstage to dance with her. Later, a cover of "Ode to Billy Joe" picked up the pace again.

The audience's whistling and stomping brought Merchant back onstage for an encore that turned into a second set during which she took requests. The result was an incredible performance of "Verdi Cries" from the "In My Tribe" album, as well as another new song, "Cowboy Romance," which closed the evening.

Katell Kleineg, the opening act, warmed up the audience with a few of the hauntingly melodic works from her compact disc, "O Seasons, O Castles." The main feature was Katell's voice, which has an incredible range and a rich timbre.

Katell reappeared later in the evening to sing a verse of a Joni Mitchell song Merchant had begun; an audience member and a roadie also sang. In keeping with the informality of the show, one of eight stops at college campuses in the northeast, Merchant graciously shared the stage numerous times and chatted and joked with the audience all evening. Nothing felt staged about her performance; it was as if hundreds of people had been invited to a rehearsal. That intimacy made it possible for the audience to really listen to and enjoy a lot of unfamiliar material.

Surprisingly, much of the Maniacs' material that should have been old territory to Merchant proved unfamiliar.

"I've written 72 songs with the Maniacs," she said. "And I only remember 12 or 13." This was evident when she fiddled with the opening chords to "Like the Weather," giving up when she realized she'd forgotten them. She expressed excitement about the new songs and mused on new things in her life: "Did you have an exciting year?" she asked the audience. "I did ... I got a new house, a new garden, a new dog; I grew my hair back, I got a new band, a new manager, a new nephew..." Clearly Merchant prefers to look forward.

Possibly because the music was hard to digest in a live setting and with the less than desirable acoustics in Webster, few of the songs stood out as likely hit singles; but they are in the mode of the Maniacs songs that made Merchant the off-beat minor pop culture icon she is. Maniacs fans should not be alarmed by the break-up.

At one point Merchant talked about the proposed renovation of Webster Hall, which would turn it into a warehouse for special collections now in Baker Library.

"I heard that this was going to be glassed in and become a library," Merchant remarked. "It's a good place for books ... but it's a good place for a concert too."