Into the Mystic

Natalie Merchant

Arie Crown Theater - Chicago

May 24, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, July 1999, Volume 6, #7

Written by John Metzger


Chicago's Arie Crown Theater is buried deep inside McCormick Place, a massive corporate complex that generally hosts business conferences. The hallways outside the arena are lined with telephones and a variety of fast food restaurants and office supply stores. This may seem like an unusual venue for a concert, but for whatever reason, a handful of artists are scheduled to perform here every year. Past shows have included Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby.

The most recent artist to grace the stage was Natalie Merchant whose glowing two-hour performance on May 24 melted the icy coldness of the business-like atmosphere. Over the course of her show, Merchant scattered seventeen songs, including five from each of her solo releases, three nuggets from the 10,000 Maniacs arsenal, and a few cover selections.

The show began as the orchestral reprise from Ophelia was thunderously piped into the theater. As the lights went down, Merchant and her seven-piece band took the stage and comfortably made the theater their own by using the cavernous acoustics to their advantage. Ophelia grew from a whisper to a roar and back again, gliding gracefully over a drum beat that was reminiscent of Peter Gabriel.

Over the years, Merchant has dealt with a variety of social issues in the lyrics to her music, and on this evening she masterfully followed the 10,000 Maniacs' What's the Matter Here? with her recent Life is Sweet. The former is a song of child abuse, while the latter offers hope, which Merchant delivered with her soaring and beautiful voice. In addition after an emotional cover of In the Ghetto, she delivered a brief speech regarding public housing and commercial development. Merchant said that she was inspired to perform the song after driving past the dismal sight of Chicago's own Cabrini Green and seeing its proximity to the yuppie hangouts of the Gap and Starbucks. It's no surprise that the housing project is scheduled to close, which prompted Merchant to raise her just concerns about the people living there.

Despite these overtones, she gave the evening a casual air as she softly spoke with fans in the front row, attempted to give the audience an impromptu lesson in British folk music, rhythmically danced from one end of the stage to the other, and fluidly altered the phrasing of her songs over the aching and tender accompaniment of her band. For example, after concluding Jealousy, Merchant drifted into a few bars of John Lennon's Jealous Guy, and Stockton Gala Days began with just Merchant's voice and understated piano chords before the band kicked in and pushed the song into the familiar territory of 10,000 Maniacs.

However, for every whispered or serious moment, there were lush, orchestrated, and jazzy arrangements that were rooted in graceful folk-pop melodies. On Carnival, drummer Peter Yanowitz and bassist Graham Maby created a buoyant groove that supported Merchant's weightless vocals, while Gabriel Gordon added a guitar solo that seemed to dance right along side her. The group turned in spell-binding renditions of Van Morrison's Into the Mystic and David Bowie's Space Oddity, and on the latter they transformed the stage into a giant rocket that achieved liftoff amidst a swirl of lights and music. In addition during the first encore, the group redefined the 10,000 Maniacs' These Are Days, allowing the song to open into a pulsing jam that fell somewhere between New Orleans' jazz and a Santana-like rhythmic excursion.

The evening concluded with a haunting Thick as Thieves as Merchant set her voice afloat on a sea created by her own piano accompaniment. Gradually the band joined in, creating a surreal bed that surged with guitar feedback before fading into the mystical evening air. Merchant and her band left the stage as quietly as they had first taken it, and her recent album once again was piped into the theater.

Ophelia is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright 1999 The Music Box