Natalie Merchant performing outside on an extra-buggy night in Minnesota: What could go wrong?
As she reached down the front of her dress to free an insect that had kamikazied down it Monday night at the Minnesota Zoo amphitheater, the regal ex-singer of 10,000 Maniacs looked as miserable as some of the people in her songs. “You can see this, right?” she asked the capacity crowd, which actually wasn't pestered by the bugs like those standing under the stage lights. “It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock film.”
Fortunately, that moment of near-wardrobe-malfunction didn’t come until toward the end of the show, and it had been a long and bountiful set up to that point. Performing with a string quartet in addition to a four-piece band, the 53-year-old alterna-pop hero delivered two sets split up by an intermission, amounting to nearly 2½ hours of music.
Until the bugs started to truly bug her, Merchant was quite jovial and even a little wacky. She danced barefoot and twirled her dress around often, just like in her Maniacs days. At times, the concert felt surprisingly like a supper-club show in the Catskills as she delivered deadpan quips with the audience, sometimes even joking over the music.
“Is that a freckle on your hand? Oh no, it’s just dirt,” she said to one audience member as she worked her way up the aisles of the amphitheater while singing “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience." She even cracked wise about the insects on parade overhead at one point, as she gestured up to them during “Butterfly,” featuring extra-fluttery string work. “That was almost perfectly choreographed,” she said, then addressed the insects directly: “OK, now you’re done. Time to go to your dressing room.”
Of course, the one nagging question going into Monday’s performance was how well Merchant – not seen in town for six years – still rates as a singer. From the get-go, her voice sounded as lush and ornamental as ever. With the string quartet for perfectly dramatic accompaniment, she focused the first half of the show on tunes from a new orchestral album featured alongside her eight solo LPs in a new box set. They turned the 10,000 Maniacs Nugget “Verdi Cries” into a delightfully quirky, cinematic number and then reworked 1998’s urgent “My Skin” into a stunning showpiece. The highlight before the intermission was a duet with guitarist Gabriel Gordon through “Break Your Heart.”
In the second half, the string quartet disappeared for a while, and Merchant and the band offered stripped-down versions of the Maniacs faves “Jack Kerouac” and “Don’t Talk.” Once the strings returned, Merchant delivered an extra-dark “Saint Judas,” which she dedicated to “the vile, crazy people who managed to take over our country.” The night ended with an urgent, cinematic “Seven Years” and a light-hearted singalong of “Kind & Generous.” That she kept singing through the on-stage swarm was itself a showing of kindness and generosity; you can bet she probably won't be returning to the zoo anytime soon, though.