e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


These Are Days

Natalie Merchant performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last night. Her setlist emphasized her more recent recordings of sleepy folks songs as opposed to songs she made famous (to me anyway) while fronting the 10,000 Maniacs in the 1980s and early 1990s. She forgot lyrics a few times (she performs sporadically) but the DSO sounded great and her music with and without the Maniacs has always been compelling and pleasant. That word, pleasant, sounds like faint praise but it's not. She has a warm, comforting voice that as much as her lyrics make her songs seem much more like poems. Orchestral arrangements of her songs make all kinds of sense.

A final thirty-minute set without the orchestra found Natalie with her pianist and guitarist doing an unplugged set of songs that people came to hear: These are Days (easily the most recognizable 10,000 Maniacs song) and solo tracks like Carnival. Plus, fun, on-the-fly snippets of motown oldies. It was an unabashedly laid-back, joyful way to end her performance. She reminisced about opening for R.E.M. decades ago at a Michigan show on the evening of her birthday and being given a cake on stage by Michael Stipe. She introduced "These are Days" by telling the audience it was a song they loved in their dorm rooms back in Ann Arbor.

Natalie and the audience owned the nostalgia in equal parts.

Present company included. 10,000 Maniacs was my first concert. Summer, 1989, with Tim Finn of Split Enz as opening act. At Nautica Flats in Cleveland, Natalie sang most of In My Tribe and Blind Man's Zoo, the two classic Maniacs records. I saw them again later that year and once more, a couple years later in college. Their songs were topical (learning disabilities, child abuse) but also imagistic ("he kicked a tumbleweed and his mother called him home, when the Arizona moon met the Arizona sun"), wrought and smart and affecting without seeming too pretentious, when I was 15 and found appealing the idea of a rock band with a worldview and when I was 19 and that worldview seemed less likely to mean life would forever feel alienating. 1992 was a moment, maybe because there was a democrat in the white house for the first time since I was in first grade. Natalie sang a duet with Michael Stipe at Bill Clinton's inauguration and rock stars were writing songs about Anita Hill and Buddhism and touting feminism and authenticity in Rolling Stone.

Nicole and I were talking about concerts before the Natalie Merchant show this week and I commented that circa 1993, if certain bands came to Detroit, it was only a question of who I'd go with. Kids from dorm (in Detroit, not Ann Arbor), maybe my pal from high school, Jason, who lived across town. It was rare that a show would be more than $15 or $20 and a couple hundred saved from slinging Taco Bell all summer or a work-study check from the school paper could cover that no problem.

Somehow Natalie's flawed show with the symphony captured both a collective, personal present and collective, personal past. The sleepy present in her main set, the freewheeling past in her encore.
Hey Jack, now for the tricky part: / When you were the brightest star, who were the shadows? Of the San Francisco beat boys, you were the favorite. / Now they sit and rattle their bones and think of their blood stoned days.

No comments: