If there is a definitive band of my youth, it’s 10,000 Maniacs. “Like the Weather.” “Verdi Cries.” “What’s The Matter Here?” The eccentric, alt-rock vocals of Natalie Merchant. Oh, the teen angst. But Merchant had a voice that represented me and my misfit friends. Along with The Church, R.E.M. and INXS, 10,000 Maniacs hit a chord with those of us who railed against the Debbie Gibsons, Tiffanys and NKOTBs of the day. We knew there was something deeper, more artistic, more important to say than “shake your love,” “I think we’re alone now,” and “hangin’ tough.”
I was fortunate to see Natalie and 10,000 Maniacs in Kansas City, Kan., back in 1989, the year I graduated from high school. They played every song off their legendary In My Tribe album, and their then-new Blind Man’s Zoo, and that night marked my first gay date. It was my birthday present from him. I was 18-years-old. My other memory from that show was Natalie asking me (and everyone) to stop smoking. It affected her voice. Good advice. It’s a filthy habit.
Now it’s 2010, I’m living out loud and smoke-free in New York City, and tonight we have a date at The Concert Hall on the Upper West Side. Natalie Merchant is back with a 27-song anthology called Leave Your Sleep. A labor of love, Merchant is still that girl with something to say, a story, or in this case, the stories of others. Over seven years, she has researched, studied and interpreted poems into songs by the writers, biographers and poets who inspire her. For every song she performed, she told the story of the poet, their inspirations, trials and tribulations. In their own regard, each was “famous” for their stories and books. To be famous in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, your work had to be widely read to be considered famous. But those names and faces are mostly lost today. Enter Natalie and her relentless search for photos, documents, first edition prints and stories of her source material to keep their memory alive. Impressive.
“The Dancing Bear” by Albert Bigelow Paine, “If No One Ever Marries Me” by Laurence Alma-Tadema and “The Janitor’s Boy” by Nathalia Crane, and Mother Goose are just samples of the many poems Merchant has meticulously interpreted. From a musical point of view, she has incorporated so many styles and instruments, it’s impossible to categorize this album… It’s bluegrass, blues, dixieland jazz, chamber folk, reggae, and more. Merchant herself said the band has had to work hard, “because these are complicated, nuanced songs… not your three-chord pop songs.” Still snarky after all these years. But her voice makes up for it. When she hits those big notes, loud notes, chill notes, I’m 18-years-old all over again. She had important things to say back then, and she still does today. Bravo, Natalie. And thank you for “Carnival” at the end. Perfect.