Merchant Sells Folk to Unappreciative Audience.

Photos and Review by Hunt Sidway

Natalie Merchant gave two concerts at the Palace July 27th, one from the heart, and one for the pocketbook. Billed as a Folk Music Tour, Ms. Merchant's 2000 concert series was conceived as an evocative, living tribute to Appalachian and other traditional forms of folk music (see inset - reproduced from her message regarding the tour on her website>). However, judging from the busy comings and goings of the attendees at the Palace during the first half of her 2+ hour show, Natalie's ecstasy was the crowd's agony. The two-thirds capacity crowd fled the unfamiliar bluegrass, folk and country offerings of the ephemeral chanteuse - in groups as large as five and six - for the numbing familiarity of other spirits and returned to their seats chatting amiably, seemingly oblivious to the other-worldly presence on the stage.

The sensual, supple Merchant returned the favor, ignoring the continual parade of bodies and the arrhythmic splashes of light from the repeatedly open doors into the lobby, instead dancing, moving and seducing the music like a snake charmer - or a spirit-filled priestess at some charismatic revival -- with her hips, her hands, her lips and that VOICE! Warm and earnest, Natalie Merchant wraps her divine alto around even these predictable traditional numbers, pulling every gut-wrenching phrase out into the open, and laying them bare before the attentive remnant. "Carpenter's House," which Natalie introduced as one they just learned the day before, was a classic lament, about a death curse that comes true. In "Which Side Are You On," she convincingly delivered a simple song about labor unions and coal mines in such an earthy manner as to elevate it to the status of archetypal tale of good versus evil. Much of the credit must go to the meticulous sound mix, which was perfectly balanced and not one decibel too loud. Finally, a concert where you can hear each instrument you see!

The radio-friendly crowd spent most of the night in the bar, familiar merely with Ms. Merchant's pop efforts and her ongoing presence on AAA radio. But to try to squeeze the stylistically diverse Merchant into the confining mold of a feel-good pop artist is to ignore her catalog of classics from 10,000 Maniacs, as well as her rootsy, heartfelt offerings on both "Tigerlily" and "Ophelia." To her credit, Merchant seems all too aware of the perils of sharing one's true musical preferences with an audience that is made up of both devotees and casual-tees. And so, after a captivating set of memorable traditional ballads and bouncy bluegrass romps (with an uptempo, Nashville-flavored rendition of "Cowboy Romance" thrown in), Ms. Merchant dismissed half her band and adjourned to the piano, for what appeared to soon be a solo set.

After gaining the crowd's full attention through the relative silence of the baby grand, Natalie explained her penchant for that "Banjoey, fiddley, bluegrassy, old-timey music" that they had been performing, even going so far as to lament her northeastern upbringing. (Confessing her love for the South, she even joked about calling her band "Merchant and the Carpetbaggers!") Then, after some Merchant ivory noodling, she brought over half the crowd to their feet with a sparkling, joyous rendition of "Wonder." Her pop/rock band replaced the bluegrass/roots pickers and fiddlers, shifting the entire evening in a completely different direction. Rewarding her fans, Ms. Merchant treated them to more familiar material: "Frozen Charlotte," "Beloved Wife," "Break Your Heart," "Life Is Sweet" and "Kind And Generous." The receptive crowd was brought to its feet as the pop portion evolved, and the canny Merchant gave 'em what they paid for.

Natalie Merchant is to be commended for evenly distributing her song selection between the folk/roots set, and her now classic pop numbers. It was a gutsy move, one which her true fans, well-versed in her entire catalog, should embrace as a rich dimension of their heroine's repertoire.