A pair of shows coinciding with the release of the first original material from Natalie Merchant in 13 years provided an additional cause for celebration at Milton Court, as the month-long Explorations festival marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of Nonesuch Records gathered pace.
Backed by a band and string quartet, the second of the two nights confirmed how Merchant still quietly revels in the simple, timeless art of songwriting and performance. Throughout the generous, career-spanning two and a half hour set she allies a sense of polished professionalism to an air of gentle, understated authority, as she carefully guides the audience through the evening.
She starts with Nursery Rhyme Of Innocence And Experience from Leave Your Sleep (her 2010 concept album centred around 19th and 20th century poetry about childhood). It feels an appropriate starting point for the show, picking up from where she left off and putting her recent personal history into context (much of the last decade has seen her occupied with raising her daughter). It’s an exquisite opener, led by the string quartet, immediately demonstrating that her material will be given the sumptuous treatment it deserves. She later returns to the album to play enchanting versions of The Man In The Wilderness, Equestrienne and Maggie And Milly And Molly And May, the latter in particular benefitting from the hushed silence that surrounds it.
The early stages are characterised by an immaculate intimacy, Merchant sensitively delivering her songs, all soft surfaces and subtle outlines. The first half of the set is dominated by her older material – the early positioning of Gold Rush Brides by her former band 10,000 Maniacs in particular belying its significance. She Devil benefits from some discreet late-night jazzy touches, while The Worst Thing is enriched with layers of accordion. She grows into the show as it progresses, acting out several songs and proving she’s a funny, witty and engaging performer. She’s also the epitome of elegant femininity, her dancing defined by refined twirls and graceful movement.
The show may begin in comfortable fashion but she doesn’t let it become excessively so, gently (and not so gently in some cases) chiding latecomers, sleepers and video-recording/text-messaging front row audience members. Yet her warmth also shines through – later she enters the stalls during the encore of Wonder, promising to send a fan a t-shirt and handing out a copy of her latest album to someone at the front.
Slightly selflessly, only three tracks from the new album make the set. Ladybird matches the smoothness and mellifluousness of her early material, while Giving Up Everything and Lulu strike more desolate and tear-stained notes. Her decision not to place too much focus on the new work fits in with the overall mood of the show. These may be over-exposed, mass-promoted times we live in but tonight feels different, a sense of privilege residing within the shared experience. Towards the end she reveals some of her recent musical interests by playing a version of Rigs Of The Times by Shirley Collins and also performs Gulf Of Araby (sharing the vocals with Katell Keineg, who also helps out in the encore on Carnival).
Musically, it may have its fair share of honeyed moments but within the sweetness are bittersweet reflections on the passing of time and on human behaviour, most notably on a soulful version of Break Your Heart. Tigerlily, her 1995 debut solo release, is well represented with six tracks (River, Seven Years and The Letter all feature) and she responds to a request for Motherland by weaving together lines from each track on the album before playing the title track in full.
Natalie Merchant releases may be sporadic but it’s clear that her ability as a performer is undiminished. She speculates that it could be years or possibly even decades before she returns again – while such a long gap would undoubtedly be disappointing it’s hard not to feel that it’s this impermanence that partly fuels such special performances like that witnessed tonight.