Merchant delivers stunning show to the closely attuned

It's not every day you hear a poem by the unconventional 19th-century Jesuit and mystic Gerard Manley Hopkins scored for vocal and orchestra. But that's what "Spring and Fall: to a young child" is. This is music that demands listening:

"Ah! as the heart grows older/It will come to such sights colder/By and by, nor spare a sigh/Through worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;/And yet you will weep and know why."

If Natalie Merchant came to town more often, such wonders would be less rare. The last time I saw Merchant she was in her Americana phase, singing old songs, as in 19th-century old. That was around the time of "Motherland."

Merchant's recent album, "Leave Your Sleep," draws its lyrics from the works of English and American poets of the 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from heavies such as Hopkins to Ogden Nash. She's said the album sprang from a desire to write lullabies for her newborn daughter, Lucia, in 2003, then took on a life of its own, evolving in time into a project that stretched two years and involved more than 100 musicians.

Sunday at Britt she was accompanied by some 30 musicians from the Rogue Valley Symphony. As a little girl, Merchant often was taken to classical music concerts by her mother, so maybe this project is more of a roots thing for her than the roots music was.

Merchant strode onto the stage at 8 p.m. in dress and high heels and said to an audience of about 1,400, "Good evening. Now we begin."

With that, the harp and violins led a slow introduction that quickly became the tune Merchant wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Land of Nod" from "A Child's Garden or Versus and Underwoods"

("...every night I go abroad/Afar into the land of Nod").

An acoustic guitarist soon joined Merchant and the orchestra, and the singer walked back and forth on the stage as she sang a song in which sea birds were flying somewhere. The orchestra alternated between echoing/commenting on Merchant's vocals and instrumental passages that gave the evening a cinematic turn.

Merchant's voice, huskier now, still gives you that feeling of power in reserve. By the third song she was dancing and twirling. Can it really be almost 20 years since she left 10,000 Maniacs, stood up to the recording industry and seized creative control of her recording projects?

She mixed sad songs ("Beloved Wife") with whimsy, such as the charming waltz she made of e.e. Cummings' "maggie and milly and molly and may." As the girls in the poem went down to the beach to play and found sea creatures, Merchant came to the verse in which "molly was chased by a horrible thing/which raced sideways while blowing bubbles ..." and made her hand into a skittering crab.

One thing you can't say about Merchant is that she plays it safe. "Henry Darger" was inspired by an outsider artist by that name, a reclusive Chicago poet who worked as a custodian and left a 15,000-page, single-spaced (as Merchant pointed out) fantasy novel called "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion." I think Merchant said (spoiler alert?) that the girls somehow wind up in a parallel universe, although I may have gotten lost in the sheer wonder of it all.

The orchestra acquited itself beautifully, playing alongside Merchant's guitarist and a pianist. The singer announced just as deadline called a reviewer that the Henry Darger song would be the last she would perform with the big orchestra.

So I have no idea what came in the end. But I'm pretty sure it was music that rewarded close listening.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at

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