No Gray Area: Life Is Sweet




GORDONVILLE – When Natalie Merchant took the stage at the American Music Theatre in Lancaster on July 9, my excitement of seeing one of the more provocative singer-songwriter voices of my formative years briefly turned to more to melancholy from my close-up view (third row, center).

When I had seen Merchant in concert – back when she fronted the 10,000 Maniacs in the 1980s and once shortly after she launched her solo career in 1993 – she was a restrained whirling dervish in patented schoolgirl attire.

About a year and a half older than myself, there was a combination of youthful exuberance within both of us, I suppose.

But on July 9 – 2014 – time had passed.

My initial shock of seeing her hair, now less than shoulder length and turned almost all gray was a not-so-subtle reminder of the evaporated decades.

Still dressed the same, but slightly more full-figured, and one would without prior knowledge might be tempted to quip that Merchant looked somewhat silly.

She barely began the first song – “Lulu,” from her new CD – when I reflected on myself.

If Natalie could see a picture of the “much fuller” G2 that used to see her in concert and the one now, she may have had some initial shock as well.

I also rock some gray, particularly in my goatee, and far less hair on top of a dome that once housed curls to spare.

And like Natalie, I’m not vain enough to do anything about the gray. And I’ll do a Kojak before the monstrosity of a weave or wig to combat the baldness.

I am also a married man now — one who spent most of the concert with my daughter, 7, on my lap because the seating Gods predictably placed “that guy” in front of her (and chose my lap over switching seats).

As Merchant sang “Lulu” – a carefully crafted song about Louise Brooks, a silent film star whose mind of her own led to with a quick fall from grace – it quickly became all about the music.

The verses of the opening song ended with the lines “everybody knew your name” before changing to “everybody cursed your name” before concluding with “nobody knew your name.”

And at some level, one has to wonder if Merchant saw herself in the subject of the song, causing her to pen it.

Any of us who have experienced a rise and fall can certainly relate to the story of Brooks.

And to that of Merchant.

Like me, Natalie became a parent later in life. I’m sure it created a seismic shift in priorities. Your career, whether as an acclaimed singer-songwriter or a big-fish-in-a-small-pond journalist, takes a back seat to the most important job you will have.

Backed by a multi-piece band that included strings, Merchant continued with a set list of mostly slower introspective songs – like “River” (about River Phoenix), “Seven Years” and “Beloved Wife” — that may not immediately register with the casual fan expecting a greatest hits package.

Merchant may or may not have been completely “into it” at the start. Just another gig in just another town, far from the big cities and larger venues she used to play, but this audience was loaded with diehards.

“We still love you, Natalie,” was a common refrain from the audience between songs.

While the music was well-rehearsed and beautiful from the jump, the vibe began to build like a life force.

You wish you could bottle it up, but that would make it less special when it does reveal itself.

You just have to let it happen, and absorb it when it does.

Merchant began moving to the music with less inhibition, and interacting — and being playful — with the audience.

(Note: This was confirmed by “that guy” after the show. He was in front of me in line in the bathroom and holding a set list he copped from one of the performers. He said he had seen her four times on the tour, and this was the most “free” she seemed.)

Whenever Merchant performed a song from the new release, her first of original material in 13 years, she jokingly held up the CD case and gently reminded the crowd that it was for sale in the lobby.

She also added that there were no T-shirts because “she doesn’t like seeing her face” on them.

I vividly remember having a 10,000 Maniacs shirt back in the day, and it was of an album cover with no faces, so the logic is debatable.

But I’ll manage to survive.

This is just Natalie being Natalie.

If she were like everyone else – basking in the limelight with the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce, etc. – she wouldn’t be her.

And I wouldn’t be there in the third row, with my daughter on my lap, soaking up the moment and using the opportunity to replay my own trials and tribulations while relating – as I always have – to her insightful and unique lyrics.

And on July 9, there was no better place on the planet to be.

It all got the best of me during “Life Is Sweet” when she sang out: “But I tell you, life is short/Be thankful because before you know/It will be over … Cause life is sweet/And life is also very short/Your life is sweet.”

My wife instinctively knew that this song – with Sofia being held tight on my lap – was going to make me lose it, and reached across Sofia’s unused seat and rubbed my shoulder.

To my left, my mother glanced over – probably wondering what the big deal was – but some people just don’t get it (case in point, her only take-away after the show was that Merchant had a good voice but should buy a wig or “do something” about the premature gray).

But I do.

I always got it.

And Merchant was clearly getting it that her voice – and her songs – still had a place in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Merchant followed “Life Is Sweet” with “Ladybird,” my favorite track from the new CD, and ended the set with “Break Your Heart” before a rousing ovation brought her back to the stage.

While people starting shouting out requests, I felt a bit annoyed because I wanted to see what she had up her own sleeve without urging.

She heeded the plea of some joker who wanted to hear “Bleezer’s Ice Cream,” and she fortunately stopped after only eight bars and launched into “Wonder,” sparking more energy in the room that was growing more intimate by the song.

A woman approached the stage and gave her some flowers, then another came up and whispered something.

Merchant came back to the mic and said – in a playfully hushed tone – that the woman requested “something by 10,000 Maniacs.”

The audience responded as expected.

Merchant, who is often reluctant to fall back on songs from her old band, then added: “And I said … yes.”

“These Are Days” followed, and the audience that had spent much of the show sitting and intently absorbing the music was up on its feet clapping along (Sofia, too).

And something amazing happened. Maybe it was just the lighting, but her hair didn’t seem as gray.

And she smiled wide as she danced around with the old verve.

It was a transformation.

Natalie Merchant became the Natalie Merchant of a bygone era.

And I went there, too.

Welcome to the power of music.

I barely got to whisper to Sofia that “These Are Days” was the “summary” song at the end of Mommy and Daddy’s wedding video when more requests reigned down.

I cringed when I heard more mellow requests, and was pleasantly surprised when a call for “Hey Jack Kerouac” – one of my all-time favorite 10,000 Maniacs songs — was accepted, on the contingency that the guitar player knew it.

He did, and Merchant sang along while the drummer found a beat.

She continued with “Carnival” and urged the crowd to its feet with “Kind and Generous.”

When the song ended, she left us wanting more.

And everybody knew her name.







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