BOSTON — Before the Natalie Merchant concert, in a lobby boisterous with fans, an audience member commented to a friend: "She's a major role model like Tracy Chapman; except Natalie is in and Chapman is out."
Well, maybe the Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs is comparable to the socially conscious singer-guitarist Chapman. But ever since breaking away from the well-liked folk-pop band two years ago, Merchant's lyrics and attitude have changed. A performer who once sang about environmental causes and women's and children's issues, she now touches upon more personal experiences relating to love, disappointment, and relationships. Her music is still similar to the laid-back sound of 10,000 Maniacs, but it has more of a kick to it. Merchant has added more percussion and has combined influences of African pop, Brazilian, and Caribbean music into her songs.
After 13 years as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, the Jamestown, N.Y., native abruptly decided to strike out on her own in 1993. Telling reporters that she wanted to gain more control over her work, Merchant produced and financed her latest CD, "Tigerlily." She also hired women to fill positions in her entourage: Her lead guitarist, sound engineer, lighting designer, road manager, and tour manager are all women.
Merchant is currently on her first United States tour without the 10,000 Maniacs. At the Orpheum Theatre in Boston recently, she mixed it up a bit by performing songs from her "Tigerlily" CD, a few hits from her days with 10,000 Maniacs, and a funky song from Aretha Franklin ("Baby I Love You").
The concert began with a Billie Holiday song, performed by Merchant behind the closed curtain. She could been seen only in silhouette as she danced. When she emerged from the darkness, Merchant began singing "San Andreas Fault," a beautiful and subdued song from "Tigerlily."
What began as a sit-down concert ended up something entirely different. Forty-five minutes into the set, Merchant's hips weren't the only ones moving to the beat.
Her new single "Carnival," with a Latin-based beat, prompted the sold-out crowd of 2,800 to rise to their feet and mimic Merchant's hip-swaying, self-expressive moves. At this point, Merchant kicked off her shoes, pulled her dark brown hair out of its bun, and began to shake her head wildly.
The barefooted singer spun around and skipped across the stage like a free spirit. Even a couple sitting with their arms and legs crossed eventually loosened up and slowly started dancing to the music. Merchant kept the groove going by singing a crowd favorite - the 10,000 Maniacs song "These Are the Days."
Where Courtney Love (of the band Hole) has to be loud, reckless, and obnoxious to entertain, Merchant can just stand and sing while her hips move to the beat. Merchant's voice is distinct - soft and soothing, yet strong and forceful at the same time.
Several times throughout the night Merchant would dance at the edge of the stage with some audience members. She would also sing a couple of lines to a song, then stop and ask her band "Uh, do you like this one? Let's sing a different song."
In the final song of the evening, only Merchant appeared on the stage playing the keyboard. She sang the slow, contemplative song "The Letter": "But if I ever write this letter/ the truth it would reveal/ knowing you brought me pleasure/ how I'll often treasure/ moments that we knew/ the precious, the few."
The spotlight was on her, where it should be.
*Natalie Merchant will be performing Oct. 24 at Riverside Theater, Milwaukee; Oct. 25 at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Oct. 27 at Fox Theater, St. Louis; Oct. 28 at Rosemont Horizon, Chicago; Oct. 29 at Northrup auditorium, Minneapolis; and Oct. 31 at the Paramount, Denver.