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This is a live album by the former 10,000 Maniacs lead singer Natalie Merchant recorded at the Neil Simon Theatre in 1999. It's not quite a completely essential must buy at all costs purchase (and the playlist is a bit on the short side) but it's a nice find with some notable highs if you are a fan and I like the sleeve design too. There are eleven songs on the album and most are taken from her solo records but you do get a few 10,000 Maniacs songs and a smattering of covers (from David Bowie's Space Oddity to the more obscure Gulf of Araby by Katell Keineg). The album begins with a live version of Wonder - a song that first appeared on Natalie Merchant's debut solo album Tigerlilly. This is I suppose what you would call a radio friendly pop song, the sort of thing you'd throw out as the first single from an album. It feels quite upbeat and jaunty in its original incarnation although an extra layer of melancholia is always often present when Natalie Merchant sings live. Songs are sometimes more stripped down on this album and the contrast is always interesting. It's a long song but cleverly constructed so that it has little plateaus and descents and can shift through the gears a few times and prevent itself from becoming too samey. It's an inventive and likeable song and Natalie Merchant's live vocals are very strong both here and (generally) throughout the album. She seems to take particular relish in performing some of these songs live and being afforded the chance to rework some of them and present them in a slightly different way. I think she's better on some songs than others (her cover of Space Oddity is not exactly essential) but when she's committed and in sync with the words and music Merchant is very good.
The lyrics are a trifle vague in this song but it essentially seems to be about the pursuit of happiness and the way we perceive ourselves and others. San Andreas Fault is next and once again this song is from her first solo opus Tigerlilly. This is a really good song and a nice showcase for Merchant's honey drenched folksy warbly slightly nasal but charming vocal talents. A great use of falsetto in this live performance and it manages to retain its infectious poppy aura in the translation from studio to stage. This song has a very rustic Americana feel in places, a trait that emphasises the diverse influences that Natalie Merchant absorbed as an artist, from British pop music to ancient folk songs found deep in the mists of dancing outlaw country. Despite the immediate and listener friendly nature of the song, the lyrics are very bittersweet. This contrast and tension is very Natalie Merchant and usually works well. "Go west, paradise is there, you'll have all that you can eat of milk and honey over there, You'll be the brightest star, the world has ever seen, sun-baked slender heroine, of film and magazine." Beloved Wife is next and not really one of my favourite songs although I like Natalie Merchant's husky voiced vocals. She displays an admirable range throughout the course of the album but is at her most effective here when the songs are more restrained and intimate. I think the live version is probably more interesting than the studio one as far as this song is concerned.
Next is Natalie Merchant's cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity. A slightly strange choice and it's not that brilliant to be honest. Natalie Merchant seems to get slightly lost just as the song should be shuddering into life and switching from pan and scan to widescreen. I think of this in the same way I do Morrissey's cover version of Moonriver. Both are decent enough but never quite justify their existence. I don't think her voice suits this song much though and she sounds a trifle too weak and warbly here. The next song is called Carnival. Again this was (I think) taken from Tigerlilly. This was famously a favourite death row song of serial killer Aileen Wuornos and Natalie Merchant (despite being a bit creeped out) consented to the song being played at the funeral of Wuornos and in Nick Broomfield's documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. I've never quite been completely won over by this song as I always expect some killer hook or chorus that never seems to arrive but it's certainly pleasant. A rambling pop song that evokes blue skies after the clouds have drifted away. This live version is pleasant enough but I don't think this song is quite as good as it's regarded to be in the Merchantsphere. Dust Bowl was taken from the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man's Zoo. It's a lovely song with some nice guitar riffs and Natalie Merchant's hushed vocal is very affecting. The lyrics are nicely composed too and somewhat haunting with a dash of social realism. "I'm adding doctor's fees to remedies with the cost of three day's work lost, I try and try but I can't save. Pennies, nickels, dollars slip away, I've tried and tried but I can't save. The hole in my pocketbook is growing."
After the Gold Rush is next and a cover of a song by Neil Young. I'm not hugely familiar with the original version despite its fame and so really took this cover version as I found it rather than compare it too closely to anything else that was already in my memory. Merchant's performance here is winningly folksy and charming and so I enjoyed this quite a bit. Gun Shy is a song that always feels slightly too ambling for its own good to me although this live version gives it some extra depth and makes the vocal feel more heartfelt. The lyrics are about the military and, er, guns. Natalie Merchant, you'll be amazed to learn, is probably not a huge fan of either. "So now does your heart pitter pat with a patriotic song, when you see the stripes of Old Glory waving? Well I knew, I could see, it was all cut and dried to me, there was soldier's blue blood streaming inside your veins. There is a world outside of this room and when you meet it promise me you won't meet it with your gun taking aim." The song is ok and enjoyable here but you do feel like it lacks a certain something. Gulf of Araby is a gentle folk song (written by Katell Keineg) and very whispered and wispy. It's very indicative of the direction that Natalie Merchant's later work would gravitate towards. Merchant's performance here is perhaps her most committed on the album and one is always aware that she loves the imagery of this song and loves performing it. Consequently, Gulf of Araby is the best of the cover songs on this album.
Next is Ophelia, the title song from one of her solo albums and a somewhat atypical Merchant song in that it is quite obstreperous and doesn't have the flowery folky sound that one normally associates with this singer. It's decent enough in this fresh incarnation. Finally, Seven Years is an epic song in album form but one that never quite seems to match up to the sum of its parts. This live version retains the kitchen sink widescreen gloss but is slightly more interesting I think because Merchant is free to construct the song in a different fashion. Merchant doesn't hold back here and really throws herself into the song. A strong finish to the album. Natalie Merchant Live in Concert is sublime at times but its eclectic nature means that it's probably one for fans only. Those new to the singer would be better off starting with one of the more famous 10,000 Maniacs albums. At the time of writing you can this for about seven pounds.