REVIEW: Brimming with compelling storytelling, accomplished singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant made stirring Tanglewood debut

Always an unforgettable storyteller, award-winning singer-songwriter and musician Natalie Merchant made her Tanglewood debut, despite increasingly darkening skies at Koussevitsky Shed in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Her soulful, musical journey included stirring tales of war, deep love and love lost, musings from history, a deadly woman, and a curvaceous Ophelia,  each tale conjuring up a vivid picture in her brilliant, and at times, elegiac lyrics.  Natalie Merchant is a force onstage and her charisma lies in her engaging, soul baring presence.  Click here for Natalie Merchant’s tour dates.

Tanglewood’s season is in full swing, having kicked off with acclaimed BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons leading the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 Resurrection on Friday, July 7.  Natalie Merchant, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, and John Mellencamp were among Tanglewood’s Popular Artists series.  After an extraordinary season of live classical and contemporary performances throughout the summer, the Tanglewood season concludes with The Boston Pops featuring Melissa Etheridge on Sunday, September 3.  Click here for tickets and further information.

Wearing a dark blue dress and her signature long, thick flowing hair, Natalie Merchant set a deeply insightful, subdued tone before building to a lively, uplifting vibe, much to the delight of the crowd.  Surrounded by a sophisticated, intimate band composed of a cellist, guitarist, pianist, drummer, and a group of elegantly dressed violinists, Natalie started with a tune from her self-titled, 2014 album, Lulu, paying tribute to the audacious silent film star and dancer, Louise Brooks, a woman who paved her own way.

Natalie Merchant lent a patriotic spin to the song, River, a song originally dedicated to memory of River Phoenix, an actor who died too young.  This version of River is from her stripped down, latest album, Paradise is There:  The New Tigerlily Recordings, hinting at the fallen soldier, her deep, contralto voice exuding a beautiful, haunting quality.  Equally affecting is My Skin, from her album, Ophelia, a gripping song about the emptiness of betrayal and loss.

Often barefoot, Natalie was physically expressive onstage, dancing, swaying, and twirling to the rhythm, flowing like a bird to a pulsing violin.  Many devoted followers were present in the audience as sporadic whoops and hollers echoed from the crowd, often shouting her name.  Natalie Merchant has been thrilling audiences since the early 80s and her onstage presence made it easy to recognize her lasting talent.  Although the weather wasn’t always cooperating during the concert, with such a strong following, the crowd remained.  “I’m sorry you are in the rain,” Natalie acknowledged the outdoor audience as the skies opened, “But after the drought we had last year, I’m not sorry for the rain.”

Sharing her passion for social and environmental issues, Natalie briefly shared the stage with Tyler Van Kirk, National Canvass Coordinator from Food and Water Watch, based in Denver, Colorado.  It is an organization dedicated to protecting the world’s natural resources.  See what they stand for here.  She also dedicated a song to corruption in government with a tune delivered partially a cappella, Poison in the Well, dating back her days with the 10,000 Maniacs.

Her gripping storytelling continued with Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience, Ophelia, and the exotic sounds of The Man in the Wilderness.  She delivered cautionary wisdom in The Worst Thing, portrayed a looming, jazz-infused rendition of a femme fatale with She Devil, and inspiration in Lady Bird.

Natalie Merchant’s music ensemble is impressive, whether during a spontaneous jam session or in the quieter moments, a perfect complement to her often heart rendering lyrics.  The tireless performer offered a more joyous and uplifting second half, sharing some her greatest hits.  From Paradise is There:  The New Tigerlily Recordings, she offered a stripped down version of her hit, Carnival, a vivid, reflective view on life.  Accompanied by just her pianist, cellist, and guitarist, she sang Wonder, which was the inspiration behind a children’s book by R.J. Palacio and an upcoming film starring Julia Roberts in November 2017.

Tender, earnest moments were strewn into the songs, Beloved Wife, Break Your Heart, and Frozen Charlotte, the latter culminated in a gorgeous violin solo.  However, she also has a unique sense of humor, sharing a story of an old cookie jar that “carries the emotional weight” of every song.

The moment of the evening was her epic encore, as the band jammed and Natalie danced furiously, the audience was brought to their feet in a spectacular version of These are Days followed by a heartfelt performance of her hit song, Kind and Generous.  Fans couldn’t have asked for better, rain or shine.

Click here to see where Natalie performs next.  Located in the Berkshires at 297 West Street in Lenox, Massachusetts, Tanglewood’s outdoor venue is a must see during the summer, whether under the tent at Koussevitsky Shed or under the stars for a lawn picnic.  Click here for more information on its Tanglewood’s Music Festival summer series and follow them on Facebook.

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