Natalie Merchant - Salford Lowry Theatre
A heckler in the crowd is shouting out for the guitarist to read an Edward Lear nonsense poem in the voice of Kenneth Williams. "Who is that? Is that the Mayor of Manchester?" he replies, bemused. Instead, Natalie Merchant reads it in the voice of Katherine Hepburn. Welcome to a very unorthodox evening with Natalie Merchant.
Conventional wisdom has it that you mix in the new songs in with the old, but tonight's show has a very clear structure. New first. Lots of new. Those familiar with her recent double album, Leave Your Sleep, in which she sets poems with a childhood theme to music, will know that it comes with some of the most comprehensive liner notes ever provided. On stage she proves that they were no bluff. The first hour of the show is, to some extent, a lecture with musical illustration in which she shows photos of the poets and gives brief anecdotes about each one. In the wrong hands this could have been very dry, but Merchant's obvious enthusiam for both poets and poems, extensive research and playful humour keep things engaging.
Also engaging is her delivery. Never still on stage, she twirls when not singing, delivers 'Maggie and Milly and Molly and Mae' sat on the edge of the stage leaning into the audience, while 'Equestrienne' involves her dancing back and forth across the stage. She also keeps things interesting by interweaving the serious with the not-so-serious, contrasting the likes of Edward Lear's nonse poem 'Calico Pie' and 'The Sleepy Giant's child-eating ways with 'Spring and Fall's theme of teaching a child about death.
For the second part of the performance, she mines her extensive back catalogue, with stripped down versions of crowd pleasing favourites like 'Jealousy' and 'Break Your Heart', along with more recent tracks including 'Motherland' and 'Tell Yourself'. The evening's finale, 'Kind and Generous' sees her shake hands with the crowd while thanking them in song, before dancing off - as ever - to her own beat.