In Charles Causley’s “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience”, which provided the words for Natalie Merchant’s opening number, a young child sends a sailor off to sea with a request for presents; when the ship returns, years later, his older self scorns the “children’s toys”. Merchant’s own concert was the reverse. An audience who remembered her at the Royal Albert Hall a quarter of a century ago – spinning on the top of a speaker stack barefoot in a twirling dress while the rest of 10,000 Maniacs pushed their jangling guitars into overdrive – might have been happy with children’s toys. Merchant served them up a string quartet and a set heavy with settings of Victorian nonsense rhyme and mid-century children’s verse.
There was gasping applause for the opening notes of “Gold Rush Brides”, a relative obscurity from the Maniacs, but then a detour through the byways of Merchant’s admittedly distinguished solo career: a slinky version of the outtake “She Devil”, in the middle of which she froze, and then improvised a lament about being lost in a “James Bond film from 1968” before the music ramped up into the middle eight and she found her way again; an understated reading of “Beloved Wife”.
Then there was the lengthy run of children’s songs, by everyone from ee cummings to Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the music slowed to a melancholy pace. On record these songs have the charm of restrained precision; but live the scratch string quartet, flawless though its playing was, acted as a drogue anchor, robbing Merchant of the opportunity to cut loose.
Things jerked back to life with the appearance of Merchant’s old backing vocalist, the great Welsh singer Katell Keineg, who brightened up the songs even as she and Merchant sang with evident affection directly at each other. As an impromptu encore, Keineg was cajoled into a performance of her own song “The Gulf of Araby”. Merchant got lost amid the dark twists and turns of the complex lyrics, passed the song over to its author, and the lyrics tugged back and forth – with the audience silently praying for the magic to hold – until the whole thing came inextricably adrift in the second chorus.
Further encores showcased Merchant’s hits: as cool aunt offering affirmation to teenage girls (“Life Is Sweet”), as champion of sick children (“Wonder”) and, finally, chanelling Marvin Gaye with cries of “can I get a witness?” on “Kind & Generous”. This at last was the revival meeting everyone had wanted.