If you were around in the mid 1980’s the undisputed King and Queen of USA indie was Michael Stipe with his band R.E.M before they found the financial delights of the stadium, and his then girlfriend Natalie Merchant and the band she fronted; 10,000 Maniacs. Merchant and her band played an intelligent brand of indie folk with Merchant’s lyrics full of little insightful tales of different people and lives. This is a woman who thrives on observation.
What does an indie music icon do 30 years after?
No one escapes father time. These days Stipe appears to lead something of the life of a recluse retired rock star emerging only occasionally to flash off his Father Christmas beard, while Natalie Merchant has enjoyed a stylish, fairly low key and elegantly smooth solo career since leaving the 10,000 Maniacs in 1993. This year Merchant decided to undertake a relaxed schedule tour of the UK and Europe (as she described onstage it was “so I could fit in a holiday and see the sights and get paid for it”) and to showcase the 7 studio albums she has released in the past 25 years.
As is always the case with Natalie Merchant in Europe, tickets sold out almost instantly and our plans to catch Merchant at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Trades Club quickly evaporated. We managed to get tickets with the excellent acoustics of the Buxton Opera House instead.
It has to be said that the majority of the audience were teens in the 80’s and it was our first gig for a while (OK, since Patti Smith and Nick Cave) where my beloved and I weren’t well within the upper quartile of aged hipsters. There were some bright young things come to check out the buzz and to get a glimpse of what their own future following music is going to end up like. We discovered that our row of fans (it was just that type of casually middle class gig where everyone introduced themselves) had come from France, Somerset and North Yorkshire.
Merchant arrived at 8 sharp with her acoustic guitarist. From the off it was clear that her voice has lost none of its warmth and beautiful tone. Natalie Merchant has one of the most perfect voices in music; she could sing Ba Ba Blacksheep and I’d still be in ecstasy. With her long grey hair and full figure, Merchant seemed to laugh loud at the American ideal of trying to look 19 for as long as possible and she looked 10 times better and 20 times more stylish than Madonna for it.
This wasn’t a concert to let your hair down with a gentle set of tunes and a gentle humour. For the first 6 or so songs the duo just played with little interaction; before relaxing their schedule and Merchant had fun with a couple of members of the audience. On discovering this was a ten year old’s first gig, she pointed out that the girl would not be embarrassed when the inevitable 18 year old conversation about “your first gig” came around. She soon apologised when she realised she had dropped an f bomb in front of the child, but claimed it wouldn’t have been the first time the girl had heard it.
Later Merchant handed out the stage display of gladiolus flowers. When the audience mentioned Morrissey’s habit of throwing around gladiolus, she giggled and asked that next time we see him we point out how carefully she had handed out the flowers to the audience, before proceeding to produce a mocking and perceptive version of Everyday is like Sunday. There was of course a reference to Trump, Brexit and the other ills of our modern world; once a political activist always a political activist.
The songs were a liberal dotting of songs spread across the 7 albums and the old Maniacs track to boot (well 4 actually, and a wonderful version of Hey Jack Kerouac). While I can be a sucker for a good lyric about the author’s own life, I am generally more charmed by those that can weave a tale about another; these songs of Merchant’s are lyrically gold dust. Merchant took to the keyboard for a little variation of sound to the end. It also has to be said there was the occasional car crash; Merchant explained as you get older things like names, places and even remembering song lyrics become less important.
With almost 150 minutes of constant music and chat, no one felt short changed and the oldest in the audience were probably really quite proud they didn’t need the loo in that timescale, although the queues for the facilities were like no other at the end.
It’s clear Merchant still has cool in swathes. It might have been better if she had a more challenging audience to win over but being amongst friends gave the gig an intimate and relaxed vibe to match Merchant’s persona and musical style. There’s far worse ways for an indie heroine to develop her style to last a lifetime performing and enjoying her music. If you are wondering how the likes of our local lass Martha Phillips may perform in 30 years time then Merchant might make for a most excellent role model.