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Thursday, 17 March 2016

Natalie Merchant - Paradise is There - Royal Albert Hall, March 16, 2016

There are definitive albums (yes, let’s still call it an album) that are mark out periods of your life. One such album for me is Tiger Lily, by the American artist, Natalie Merchant. During my twenties, the plaintive tones of Ms Merchant were often found on my Walkman (for those of you who don’t know what that is – Google it) and then later, my Discman (Google) Her appeal as a singer songwriter came from her sparse song arrangements accompanied by deceptively simple lyrics which evoked complex worlds within which characters spoke of their day to day lives and served to draw me in.

Last night Natalie Merchant played her only London show as part of her worldwide 2016 tour, Paradise is There.  The tour commemorates the twenty year anniversary of Tiger Lily’s release. The tour showcases re-recordings of the original eleven songs with different arrangements, reflecting the passage of time and its impact on both songwriter and song.

I had managed to score a ticket to the show which was at the Royal Albert Hall. An email from the venue had stipulated that there would be no support act and that Natalie would arrive on stage at 7.30pm.  In my seat by 7.20pm, I watched as the half empty venue slowly filled up. The audience demographic seemed like they would appreciate an early start so they could be back home and in bed by 11.00pm.

Soon Natalie arrived on stage as promised and launched into her first song. Halfway through, she forgot the words. So she started again. And then again. Apologising for her nerves, she re-commenced the song and by its end, she could have recited the alphabet or read the dictionary. By flubbing the lyrics, she had won us over. As she started to hit her stride it became clear that her songs have not diminished with time, nor her voice. 

As she played through her first set, Ms Merchant visibly warmed up as she sang her old tunes, dancing on the stage like a flamenco whirling dervish. She was dressed in the manner of a ballet teacher in a black ballet wraparound top, black leggings and black chiffon skirt.  Her hair manifested itself differently for each song. Sometimes up. Sometimes down. Sometimes being held by her hand and sometimes being whipped along to the beat of the music. Her hair had a show in its own right.

As she danced to her own music, it seemed that she was invoking the songs through her dancing.  The more she danced, the warmer she got. The warmer she got, the more relaxed she seemed.  And the more relaxed she became, the more powerful her performance.  It was as much a visual treat as well as an aural one. By the end of the first set, the audience were all warmed up too and reluctantly let her go for the compulsory intermission as dictated by the venue so it could make more money from the audience at the bar.

Even though she said her touring act were unaccustomed to taking intermission breaks, there was no sign of mid show lethargy as Natalie and her band plunged us into the second set post intermission. Relaxed, she bantered with the audience and weaved her way through the aisles, mixing singing with improvisational dance. Remarkably she managed to create an atmosphere of intimacy whilst performing in such a cavernous venue. It was extraordinary and even though my seat was far up in the highest circle, I did not feel far at all.

In fact, it felt like I was in my twenties again. Listening to her on my Walkman while walking down the streets of my hometown.
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