I'm no music aficionado (I would be embarrassed for you to see my iPod playlist), but I was excited when my wife got us tickets ($72 each!) to see Natalie Merchant at the Fox Theater in Oakland last night. I've listened to and enjoyed her music for years and looked forward to hearing it live. I'm also no music critic as my knowledge of music is pretty limited, but I know what I like and all a review really is is one person's opinion. And here is my opinion of Ms. Merchant's performance last night: It was a great disappointment and I would recommend against seeing her in concert.
Let's start with the positives of the show. Ms. Merchant has a remarkable voice: deep, resonant, and evocative. Her back-up band was talented, though they were shrouded in semi-darkness and her introductions of them were perfunctory. The Fox Theater, recently renovated and reopened, was truly spectacular; a beautiful piece of architectural history with phenomenal acoustics. And Ms. Merchant did finally sing some of her old favorites during the encore (more on that shortly).
Now for the stuff I didn't like. First of all, the first one and three-quarter hours of the show were devoted to her new album, Leave Your Sleep, a compilation of children's poetry by 19th and 20th century English and American writers put to music. Ms. Merchant was genuinely proud and excited about her new album. The problem was that, based on the quietness of the audience (no standing, swaying, or dancing that I could see), this excitement didn't seem to extend beyond the edge of the stage.
I understand that entertainers need to promote their latest material in their live performances, but, I don't know about you, but I go to concerts to hear their hits. I could have understood if she had mixed in the new with the old, but her new songs kept going on and on and on. Not that they were bad, some were quite beautiful (though, admittedly, not my cup of tea). But a good part of the pleasure of these songs was lost because we couldn't understand the lyrics; poetry, after all, is powered by its verse. I felt that her choice of songs was self-indulgent and inconsiderate of your audience's wishes (though I realize that others in attendance may have different preferences than I).
What made this part of the concert so maddening was that each song was accompanied by a powerpoint presentation and a sometimes-lengthy biography and story of each poet. Ms. Merchant must have spent close to 30 minutes talking when I (and presumably others) were at the Fox for a concert. If I had wanted to listen to a lecture on children's poetry, I would have enrolled in a class at Cal. At one point, others in the audience began to show their frustration; one yelled "Let's rock!" and several others called out popular songs they wanted her to sing.
She also got cranky several times: when her powerpoint remotes didn't work for a few seconds, when a bartender was apparently too noisily shaking a drink at one of the bars, and, most rudely, when she was "heckled" by those who had had enough of her new album. In response, she said (in a condescending, you-stupid-children tone) that this was the main part of the show and then there would be an encore in which, as I interpreted it, if the audience showered her with sufficient love and adoration, she would deign to return to the stage and grace us with some of her popular material.
I felt like the entire performance was really about what Ms. Merchant wanted to do rather than considering what her audience expected. I realize that this is an artist's prerogative, but it wouldn't seem to engender much good will or encourage album sales.
Ms. Merchant also didn't engage with or connect with the audience. I felt like she was talking at us rather than with us. She tried being funny a number of times, but her efforts generally felt flat (though she was clearly amused by her musings). Even when she was singing, there was little emotion emanating from her and no sense of a shared emotional experience with the audience. It was all rather cerebral. And this was perhaps the greatest failure of the performance. I think that people go to concerts to move and to be moved. In the case of Ms. Merchant last night, few in the audience did either.
I also wasn't very impressed with the audience. Despite what I think was pretty widespread dissatisfaction with the show, many in the audience played the role of fawning fan particularly when Ms. Merchant left the stage after concluding what she described as the main part of the show. Many concert goers continued to cheer loudly for the formulaic, vainglorious, and inevitable encore long after she should have returned.
Natalie Merchant is undoubtedly a tremendous songwriting talent with a extraordinary voice. But as far as her concerts go, she has lost this fan and customer forever.