“I love outdoor shows,” said Natalie Merchant, warmly but also sarcastically. “Can you tell?” On Monday night at the Minnesota Zoo’s Weesner Family Amphitheater, the singer-songwriter battled bugs, birds, airplanes, and imaginary tigers, but emerged triumphant.
Merchant’s always been a compelling live performer, in part because she’s not afraid to let her occasional onstage discomfort show. She can then turn around, though, and create such a genuinely enthusiastic moment that you’re left convinced there’s nowhere on Earth she’d rather be.
An example of this came early on Monday evening, when Merchant was taken aback at just how clearly she could make out each and every member of the audience in the closely raked outdoor venue, still well-lit by the setting sun at 7:30 p.m.
“I can see every shenanigan you’re up to,” said Merchant, as fans caught off-guard by the prompt starting time continued to stream into their seats with beers, seat cushions, and the occasional plate of chicken fingers. “So keep your hands where I can see them!”
She then went on to comment on attendees’ various shirt colors (“Is periwinkle especially popular in Minnesota, or just when you go to the zoo?”), but then smiled warmly and added, “You’re all so beautiful. Just look at you!” We all blushed.
Merchant also noted the fact that, in her tongue-in-cheek words, she “never tours.” It’s been a particularly long drought in Minnesota: seven years since she played the O’Shaughnessy in 2010. (A scheduled 2013 appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra was canceled due to the orchestra’s lockout.)
The occasion for this tour is the impending release of The Natalie Merchant Collection (officially released Friday, though attendees last night were able to purchase copies at the merch table). The ten-disc set includes all eight solo albums she’s released since 1995’s Tigerlily, plus a disc of rarities and a disc of new recordings — including a few new songs, plus some reworked catalog tracks — with a string quartet.
The quartet were on hand last night, along with a four-piece band featuring her longtime guitarist and understated stage foil Gabriel Gordon. The strings weren’t just there for a splash of class: several songs had fully-wrought arrangements that included long instrumental sections during which Merchant occasionally wandered back to gaze across the lake behind the stage.
From her teenage debut with 10,000 Maniacs, Merchant has always been a model of poise, precision, elegance and literary erudition: her lyrics have sometimes been printed in prose format. Now, at age 53, graying hair and a slightly more conservative style of dress (but that might have just been in consideration for the string quartet) are just about all that separate her from her past self.
She even plucked Maniacs nuggets like “Verdi Cries” and “Gold Rush Brides” as if to remind us that this quietly lilting songstress has always been there alongside the singer who kept pace with, and even spurred, her past band’s urgent tempos and colorful cascades.
Between songs, Merchant was full of droll observations about the Upper Midwestern setting. “I told him,” she said, beckoning Uri Sharlin forward with a familiar instrument, “accordion is big in Minnesota. There’s polka in your blood. That’s why the mosquitos love you so.”
The theme of Merchant’s current tour is “Three Decades of Song,” and the setlist indeed spanned just about that duration — from 1987’s In My Tribe to the present. Within her solo catalog, Ophelia (1998) and Tigerlily were particularly well-represented, the latter’s 11 songs having recently been re-recorded with new arrangements.
Merchant is clearly in a musical sweet spot with this chamber ensemble. Rather than being embellished, the songs feel stripped, as if they’ve cast off their folk-rock robes to reveal inner riches. For example, “Wonder,” her biggest solo hit, lost its ’90s ebullience and became an almost prayer-like declaration. (The song inspired a 2012 novel by R.J. Palacio, and will be featured in an upcoming film adaptation of that book.)
Despite the precise arrangements and the outdoor distractions (“Can you see that we’re in an Alfred Hitchcock movie up here?” she said as the sun disappeared and the insects swarmed), Merchant found room for ample spontaneity and engagement during the show, which ran nearly three hours with a 20-minute intermission. She walked into the crowd and took a seat, she investigated the boxes in front of the stage at length (“Bird show! Bird show!” yelled audience members by way of explanation, as Merchant peered out with a puzzled expression), and she even took requests during a loose second-act set with her core band.
A highlight was an unexpected singalong to “The Boys in the Back Room,” a 1939 song made famous by Marlene Dietrich and sung, for a few bars, in her style. In this case, what the boys (or men, rather, and women) were having was a fine evening of music with one of the signature stylists of her generation. I’ll have another, please.
Lulu (Natalie Merchant, 2014)
Ophelia (Ophelia, 1998)
Frozen Charlotte (Ophelia)
Gold Rush Brides (Our Time in Eden, 10,000 Maniacs, 1992)
Verdi Cries (In My Tribe, 10,000 Maniacs, 1987)
Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience (Leave Your Supper, 2010)
My Skin (Ophelia)
The Man in the Wilderness (Leave Your Sleep, 2010)
Break Your Heart (Ophelia)
The Worst Thing (Motherland, 2001)
Life is Sweet (Ophelia)
Carnival (Tigerlily, 1995)
San Andreas Fault (Tigerlily)
Hey Jack Kerouac (In My Tribe)
The Boys in the Back Room (Marlene Dietrich cover)
Don’t Talk (In My Tribe)
Saint Judas (Motherland)
Butterfly (Butterfly in The Natalie Merchant Collection, 2017)
Giving Up Everything (Natalie Merchant)
Seven Years (Tigerlily)
Ladybird (Natalie Merchant)
Kind & Generous (Ophelia)
Writer Jay Gabler is a digital producer at The Current. Photographer Emma Roden is a student at Normandale Community College.