Nine years since her last record of original music, Natalie Merchant has steadily crafted some of the most intricate and lyrically dense songs without having an air of pretension. Referencing classic literature while weaving empowering tales of womanhood across her storied career. Having grown up in the late 90s, I couldn’t imagine a world where hits like “Wonder” and “Kind and Generous” weren’t flooding the airwaves with the softer, radio-friendly counter to the fading grunge movement. While Merchant has enjoyed a quiet life teaching music to children in upstate New York, on “Keep Your Courage,” she emerges from the period of isolation in 2020 and raising daughter Lucia de la Calle to go back on the road, backed by local orchestras in each city. With only two hours worth of rehearsal, Merchant performed over and a half of songs from her career with the South Florida Symphony Orchestra.
Opening with the track “Lulu,” the lush orchestral strings underscored a piano ballad dedicated to Louise Brooks, a film star from the silent era. Brooks’ penchant for hedonism made her a celebrity, she faded into relative obscurity once sound was introduced into pictures, but was rediscovered only to die shortly after her public resurgence. Merchant’s strident mezzo-soprano encompasses the strong heroines she chooses to embody in her songs with a reserved power. Weaving lyrical allusions to the Greek myth of Narcissus from the viewpoint of Echo, as well as transforming E.E. Cummings’ poem “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May” into a folk-inspired torch song, the show is less a “Greatest Hits Concert” and more a theatrical experience. Even the cover of her latest record “Keep Your Courage” is presented with a stone visage of Joan of Arc, the woman soldier that disguised herself as a man to help liberate France from the English. With Natalie Merchant emerging onto stage in a brilliant silken magenta kimono, she reveals a cerulean puffy sleeve blouse and pleated black dance skirt as she kicks off her ballet flats between songs for a larger range of movement. With a fusion of jazz and flamenco, she croons “En el pasado estuve ciega como tu/Atrapada why perdida como tu” on the sultry “The Worst Thing” as she sways, twirling her flowing skirt in her hands as her wild silver hair dances in the wind.
With her stop in Clearwater the previous night, Merchant rehearsed with the South Florida Symphony Orchestra for two hours prior to the 8PM show. The conductor Maestra Sebrina María Alfonso arranged the massive ensemble with a truly lush score featuring gentle harp, booming percussion, and an ebullient brass section on top of the sea of gorgeous strings. With Merchant’s style of singer-songwriter compositions, she tours with her own rock band of guitar, drums, bass, piano and a backing vocalist. The first half of her show primarily featured newer material from the singer, with the only “Tigerlily” song being the track “The Letter.” Before intermission, Merchant introduced Grant Smith of Broward Cares, a group of Community Foundation of Broward, United Way of Broward County and the Jewish Federation of Broward County. Smith, spoke of the need for relief funds after the flooding on April 13 that left many stranded, still some without homes. Merchant raised a staggering $20,000 to the Red Cross and Broward Cares that evening in a move that was quite kind and generous. Closing the set with “Come On, Aphrodite” the audience was compelled to dance in the aisles from their seats.
The second act of the show saw more raucous applause, opening with the classic cut “River” from 1995’s “Tigerlily.” While it’s been over two decades since the album’s release, Merchant states that “Tigerlily is the most significant album I’ve made because it defined me as an independent songwriter after 12 years in 10,000 Maniacs.” The success of the album has allowed Merchant and her family to live in comfort, with songs being licensed for shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” Indeed the second half of the show featured some of the heavier material like “Beloved Wife,” a song about the “devotional love” her grandparents had for each other from the viewpoint of her grandfather, dying of a broken heart after her grandmother’s passing. As well as, “Sister Tilly,” a song Merchant proclaims to be about the women of her mother’s generation that she has lost, describing them as wearing “Joan Didion glasses” and giving the audience fair warning that she would cry during the song.
However, as she closed out the show Merchant began to dig into the big hits from both her debut and sophomore record “Ophelia,” named for the Shakespearean tragic figure. From the ripping riffs of “Wonder” where she claimed she was “winging it with an orchestra” due to the song being unrehearsed, into her closing track “Kind & Generous.” Though breaking the tension of the show, she joke-sang “I don’t know why– everybody’s making a movie! Be here now!” in her aversion to the sea of phones in the front row. Signage had indicated that photos and short videos without flash were okay as long as it didn’t impede on other audience members’ experience, a request that was mostly heeded despite flashes going off several times in the show. In her encore, Merchant performed with only her band the classic hit “Carnival” which has had a recent resurgence in popularity due to its feature in “American Horror Story” from its association with serial killer Aileen Wuornos who requested it be played at her funeral. Paying a tribute to the group that brought her some of her earliest success in her young adult life, Merchant threw in the 10,000 Maniacs song “These Are Days” and closed out with the more recent “Tower of Babel.”
Over 20 years since her debut as a solo singer-songwriter, Merchant’s voice is as strident and powerful as ever despite a spinal surgery that nearly silenced her vocals permanently in 2018. Backed by a massive orchestra and dazzling light spectacle, the “Keep Your Courage” shows are less Lilith Fair and more Broadway spectacle led by her lyrical wordsmithing and commanding stage presence, making the Broward Center for the Performing Arts the perfect house for Natalie Merchant’s show.
Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
The Feast of St. Valentine
The Worst Thing
Giving Up Everything
Break Your Heart
Come On, Aphrodite
Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
Life Is Sweet
Kind & Generous
These Are Days (10,000 Maniacs Cover) (Followed by Happy Birthday to the drummer Philip)
Tower of Babel