PJ loves Natalie Merchant, so, for his birthday this year, I bought us tickets to see her  in Chicago last week. We’ve been listening to her new album of poetry for children set to music. I wasn’t completely into it, I have to say, so I was really surprised by how blown away I was by the concert. Merchant’s performance for the better part of three hours was simply amazing. It was one of the best concerts — if not the best concert — I’ve ever been to. Merchant was brilliant!

Here’s an explanation of what she’s doing in the album:

We saw her in the Chicago Theatre, which is a great venue. The first part of the concert was all songs from the new album. Instead of a traditional encore, she did a second set of some of her greatest hits and fan favorites.

What impressed me about the concert was two things. First, I really admired her commitment to teaching us a little bit about the poets whose words she’s set to music. She didn’t go into full-fledged lectures or anything, but she gave us a little tidbit about each poet’s life or poetry, something interesting and relevant to the poem. She also presented us with a PowerPoint presentation that had pictures of each poet and in a couple of cases illustrations that went along with the poems.

Second, and more substantially, I loved what she did with the live versions. Her voice was incredible, and the musicality of the performance was brilliant. She set the poems to different genres of music, and hearing them live you can really hear how she matches her voice, pitch, intonation, and style to each genre. Her performance really made the poems come alive to me; I would love for her to put out a concert album with these poems. I’d definitely buy it!

My favorite of the songs is “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” by Charles Causley:

As Merchant explains, as her daughter grew a little older and started asking more sophisticated questions, including one about death, she felt that she should include poems about all aspects of life in this collection. I especially love the last line of the poem: “… why have you brought me / Children’s toys?” It’s an interesting twist to the song.

I also really like “If No One Ever Marries Me” by Laurence Alma-Tadema (the daughter of the painter, not the painter of the same name). This video is a little difficult to hear, but it’s a great song:

I got the sense from the concert that Merchant loves “Equestrienne” by Rachel Field, if only because it’s such a short poem and she repeats it over and over again:

What helped makes these songs work so well was that she had a much smaller band rather than the orchestra she has on the album. This really allows her to feature her voice more, I think.  These stripped down versions are amazingly affective.

During the second half of the concert she sang some of her greatest hits, like “Wonder,” “Carnival,” and “Kind and Generous.” I thought she was very generous in what she sang and how she sang them. A few people left before what they thought was the encore; they really missed a great experience. We’ve seen her in concert every time she’s gone on tour, and it’s fun to see how she’s changed up the arrangements for some of these songs this time. Again, she had the stripped down band, which allowed her to play with the older songs and really rework them. Her version of “Eat for Two” is even more dark than in the past.

This was an amazing concert. I came away really impressed with Natalie’s brilliance, artistry, and intelligence. I’m definitely a bigger fan now than I was a week ago!