BOSTON — NOT too long ago, the band 10,000 Maniacs was commonly mistaken for a heavy-metal act. But today, people know better than to judge a group by its name - especially a group that's hip and up and coming.
While the band's second major-label album - ``In My Tribe'' - is nearing platinum status, the folk-rock quintet is serving a hot follow-up with its newly released ``Blind Man's Zoo,'' already 16th on Billboard magazine's top-album chart. Music critics predict that ``Blind Man's Zoo'' will fully secure the band's big-league success launched last year with ``In My Tribe.''
Currently on tour in the US, 10,000 Maniacs recently played three sold-out shows at Boston's 4,200-seat Wang Center - another measure of how much its popularity has soared since the group's nightclub-circuit tours just a few years ago.
Based in Jamestown, New York, the band was formed in 1981. It maintained an underground existence at first, then filtered into the mainstream by way of recordings, tours, late-night television, opening gigs for big-name acts such as R.E.M. and Squeeze. All of which produced a faithful following in Britain and the US. ``In My Tribe'' is considered the group's breakthrough album, and sales for it peaked many months after its release in 1987. By early 1988, the Maniacs were headlining at concert halls and featuring Tracy Chapman as an opening act.
Although 10,000 Maniacs is billed as a folk-rock group, its music is a m'elange of elements. The British- and Caribbean-influenced, beat-driven music is matched with jangling and chiming melodies sometimes likened to Fleetwood Mac's and R.E.M.'s.
But much of the Maniacs' identity and sound depend on the group's singer and frontwoman, Natalie Merchant. Her voice exudes a rich sound seemingly devoid of breath - a kind of sweet, melodic holler that's captivating whether live or on record. Ably backed up by Robert Buck on guitar, Steve Gustafson on bass, Dennis Drew on keyboards, and Jerome Augustyniak on drums, Ms. Merchant maneuvers her voice in a way that makes it sing out to listeners yet also draws them in to what she's singing about. She writes some of the songs for the group and all of its lyrics.
In her lyrics, which are often difficult to decipher unless they're printed, Merchant has a knack for examining the thoughts of individuals - usually people who are facing some kind of conflict - and revealing them in slice-of-life parables. By taking the role of protagonist or an active observer, she presents situations that are not only graspable but highly topical.
The ``In My Tribe'' album addresses child abuse, apathy, illiteracy, and alcoholism through the eyes of involved individuals. The ``Blind Man's Zoo'' album is in the same vein but has a more politicized outlook characteristic of many bands of the late '80s. The song ``Please Forgive Us'' is about the Iran-Contra scandal. ``Poison in the Well'' focuses on environmental issues, as a man laments the poison found in the water his family has been drinking for years. ``The Big Parade'' stems from Merchant's visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. ``Eat for Two'' concerns teen pregnancy.
``Dust Bowl'' offers a powerful look at poverty through the eyes of a struggling mother. The lyric begins with the woman in a store with her children: ``I should know to leave them home. They follow me through the store with these toys I can't afford. `Kids, take them back - you know better than that.' Dolls that talk, astronauts, TV games, airplanes - they don't understand, and how can I explain? I try and try, but I can't save. Pennies, nickels, dollars slip away....''
Not surprisingly, the dark-eyed Merchant is always in the spotlight onstage. Sporting a blue polka-dot dress at the Boston concert, she assumed an audience-friendly role, though she was less talkative than in past appearances.
Her confidence and eclecticism, together with the twirls of her body, jerking arm movements, and abrupt swings of her head, kept the audience watching her every move.
One high point of the concert was the song ``You Happy Puppet,'' when she disappeared into a huge puppet and sang while controlling its arms. During ``Poison in the Well,'' she threw water into the audience.
The concert included a mix of songs from ``In My Tribe'' and ``Blind Man's Zoo,'' with a few from the Maniacs' first major album, ``The Wishing Chair,'' which pleased longtime fans.
After two encores, the show characteristically closed with Merchant performing a quiet solo at the keyboard - ``Verdi Cries'' - a song that left the audience with a solemn, impactful goodbye.
The 10,000 Maniacs tour continues with stops in Indianapolis July 7; Cleveland July 8; Detroit July 10; Minneapolis July 12; Milwaukee July 13; Chicago July 14; St. Louis July 16; Denver July 19; Vancouver, Canada, Aug. 8; Seattle Aug. 9; Portland, Ore. Aug. 10; Berkeley, Calif., Aug. 12; Santa Barbara Aug. 13; Los Angeles Aug. 15-16; San Diego, Aug. 19; Miami, Aug. 23; Ft. Lauderdale Aug. 24; Atlanta Aug. 28; and Houston Aug. 31.