Concert review: Natalie Merchant sings poetry, charms crowd, disses Columbia Restaurant at Ruth Eckerd Hall (with photos)

[image-1]She had a lot of fun with Arthur Macy's "The Peppery Man,"  her snarly, swinging attack powered, it seems, by a desire for revenge. Introducing the song, she said, "This is dedicated to the kitchen staff of the Columbia Restaurant" [big cheer from audience] who were responsible for the worst case of food poisoning I've ever had in my life" [big gasp]. She went on to compare the restaurant's iconic 1905 salad to compost and declared (based on her marriage to a Spaniard) that the Columbia's cuisine is not Spanish food. (She may have been mocking her own curmudgeonliness a bit, though; the lyrics scold the title character for his "ugly temper" and "savage frown.")


Merchant served up so many colors and musical styles in the poetry section of the evening that the second half of the concert seemed a little pinched at first, almost dutiful. But a heartfelt duet with guitarist Gabriel Gordon on "Break Your Heart" showed how effective she can be at conveying deep feeling (especially heartbreak) and the torchy, piano-accompanied delivery of "The Worst Thing" cast the melancholy spell of a Portuguese fado.


The crowd of 1,708, listing decidedly toward middle age, finally got up on their feet en masse when Merchant launched into the inevitable closing number, "Kind & Generous," with its glorious cascades of "thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you." Except perhaps for the kitchen staff of the Columbia, the thanks was mutual.


More pics by Tracy:


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An evening of obscure poetry set to music by Natalie Merchant might sound like an endurance test, but never underestimate Natalie. She not only possesses one of the most distinctive voices in rock — and at 46, she still shifts effortlessly from rich, cottony croon to soulful wail — she's also one of pop music's most original minds. And while you might fear that the 19th and 20th-century children's poems she's unearthed for her new release, Leave Your Sleep, would threaten severe twee overload, the music they've inspired her to write is surprisingly rich and varied. Accompanied last night at Ruth Eckerd by an expert eight-member band playing everything from cello to piano to banjo to accordion, she made it seem as if the poems had been waiting for her music all along. [All photos by Tracy May.]

For instance, a bit of doggerel written by the humorist Ogden Nash for his daughter Isabel becomes a rollicking Cajun number. (Merchant said she didn't know if Nash had ever visited Louisiana, but she imagined he'd approve; like the other poets represented in the evening, his photo was projected behind her during the number, and his affable countenance suggested he would.) "Dancing Bear" by one Albert Bigelow Paine gets an irresistible klezmer-esque treatment, while "If No One Ever Marries Me" by the "poetess" daughter of a wealthy 19th-century painter is sung almost unadorned, a spinster's wistful lament. There's even a living poet on the menu: the American children's author Jack Prelutsky, whose "Bleezer's Ice-Cream" is a  litany of tongue-twisting, stomach-turning flavors ("tuna taco baked potato") that Merchant sings while doing the twist. Her stage presence throughout the show was an intriguing mix of calculation and abandon; she stood very still for some songs,  her movements limited to precise, graceful hand gestures, but at other times she swayed and twirled and even capered a bit (for a song called "The Equestrienne").

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