Christina Wright
Natalie Merchant and the MSO

A dreamy Saturday night

Merchant performed songs from her beautiful 2010 album "Leave Your Sleep," a collection of poems set to music.

By - Oct 28th, 2012 11:35 am
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Natalie Merchant dazzled the crowd at the Milwaukee Theatre Saturday. Photo credit Mark Seliger.

Turns out singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant loves literature lover and is a bit of a nerd. That’s a good thing – it made her performance with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Saturday night more endearing.

Merchant, who rose to fame as lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs in the ’80s before going solo in 1993, teamed up with the MSO to bring her 2010 Leave Your Sleep album to life. The two-disc album comprises nothing but  19th and 20th century British and American poetry put to music.

During the concert, her words made it clear the album was a labor of love dedicated to the power of literature to inspire imaginations.

“When ‘Leave Your Sleep’ came out, I performed at a librarians convention. I’ve never seen a more enthusiastic crowd than 5,000 librarians,” she said. “We cried together about funding cuts. You can never discount that 10-year-old girl reading in the corner.”

Merchant must have been that little girl, reading volumes of poetry in her local library.

She kept things simple. Merchant entered quietly with MSO conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. She wore a simple black wrap dress, purple tights and black Mary Janes. Without fanfare, she moved into the first song: Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century poem “The Land of Nod.” Her honey-smooth voice took us on a magical vocal journey that concluded with enthusiastic applause from the delighted audience.

She’s certainly not a diva – at one point she spilled water on herself while attempting to take a sip in between songs and went on without a fuss. Saturday was her birthday and she received a “Happy birthday!” from an audience member. “Well, thank you,” she said. “But after 45 there aren’t too many happy ones.” The “Leave Your Sleep” album will soon be accompanied by a deliciously illustrated book of the same name. “Here comes the nerd again,” she said before explaining that she’ll be debuting the book at an upcoming English teachers’ convention. “It will be a nerd’s paradise.”

A children’s book based on Merchant’s latest album will be released later in November.

Merchant also sang several of her old favorites. The first was “Life is Sweet,” from her 1998 album Ophelia. She looked directly into the audience, telling us that, “life is sweet/in spite of the misery/there’s so much more/be grateful.” We believed and we took the words to heart. There was also “The Letter” from her 1996 album Tigerlily, a touching message to an unrequited lover.

All of these songs took on extra weight, length and dimension thanks to the orchestra. A Scottish flute, Middle Eastern strings and a French accordion added life and color. Merchant show respect to the MSO; often she turned completely away from the audience to gaze upon the violinists, cellists, bassists and occasional bongo drummers.

Merchant added some theatricality to her songs. She pawed the ground , in equine fashion, during Field’s “Equestrienne.” She mimicked a Chinese dancer’s twirling of a fan as she sang “The King of China’s Daughter,” and gently moving her arms during other songs as though simultaneously conducting her voice and the orchestra. She would often twirl across the stage. One could imagine her dancing in the same way at home. “I have a Victrola in my living room,” she told us. No surprise there.

If only every English teacher and librarian could be like Merchant. Her songs and her voice have the quality of lullabies. At 10, when she finished the final song, we headed home to bed with a canon of tales to feed our dreams.

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