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").