The 2016 Paradise is There Tour, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tiger Lily
The Royal Albert Hall, London
16th March 2016
Vain & Careless
The Worst Thing
Spring and Fall: To A Young Child
Giving Up Everything
The Man In The Wilderness
Build A Levee
Nursery Rhyme: Innocence and Experience
Life Is Sweet
Break Your Heart
Kind & Generous
Erik Della Penna – guitars
Uri Sharlin – piano, keyboards, accordion
Logan Coale – double-bass
Alison Miller- drums, percussion
Marandi Hoseletter – viola
Megan Weeder – violin
Karen Waluch – violin
Eleanor Horyon – cello
The set list is problematic. My usual ploy with reviews is to print off a couple of previous set lists, and scribble numbers in the dark where the order changes. I noticed the first two shows on setlist.fm were identical. The New York setlist hadn’t gone up when we left to drive to London. So I knew the first two songs were the same, sat back and relaxed in the sheer beauty of the music. I got to the interval and realized that she had strongly changed the list and running order and I hadn’t been making notes. And once you’ve stopped, you’re reluctant to pick it up. The above is revised based on the setlist at setlist.fm. My original had Spring & Fall in Part two with Nursery Rhyme. I don’t recall hearing Frozen Charlotte and I keep playing San Andreas Fault and thinking it was played in part one. But otherwise we agree, so I’m assuming the contributor had better notes than me!
I rate Natalie Merchant as in the premier league of singer-songwriters, by which I mean Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Robbie Robertson. That is an elite league. James Taylor and Neil Young would just about scrape entry, but there are very few others. Yes, she’s that good as a tunesmith and lyricist, and, er, definitely better than some of them as a singer, naming no names but two are short versions of Robert. And some of the others aren’t as good as they used to be either. Of course she benefits from a 15 to 20 year age difference … she was born in 1963.
She’s the latest addition to the list, so I’ll describe my history with her music. The first album I bought was late on, Unplugged by 10,000 Maniacs after hearing These Are Days on TV. I went back to get Blind Man’s Zoo. When she went solo, I bought most: Tiger Lily, Motherland, Ophelia, but not all. Leave Your Sleep was the stunned reaction one … I thought it completely brilliant. I have a “Desert Island” playlist of greatest favourites in iTunes and it’s very long, and she had four entries: These Are Days, Jealousy (from Tiger Lily), King of May (from Ophelia) and Equestrienne (Leave Your Sleep). None of them were played tonight, sadly.
Natalie Merchant (2014)
Then came Natalie Merchant in 2014. It was my “album of the year” and my most-played album of the last two years. In 2015 she decided to revisit Tiger Lily and re-imagine every song’s arrangement as well as changing the running order. The resulting album, Paradise Is Here is fast catching up with the one before. I quite often switch between Tiger Lily and Paradise Is Here too.
Everything went so smoothly for us on this concert. We found a rare-as-hen’s-teeth parking bay right behind the Royal Albert Hall, and had a good meal in the Italian restaurant at the venue. Then it got better. We had found almost no seats left available on line, and the only two we could find together were way up in the top circle, slightly behind the stage. We went in early, and the hall immediately offered us tickets downstairs in the stalls in exchange for our very poor ones. Though we saw no cameras, notices said they were filming, and I guess there was a chunk of unsold seats returned from some avaricious ticket agency which they preferred to fill rather than leave a hole. Weirdly, there were many seats empty at the highest levels, all “occupied” when we booked online. So we got great seats, and as the Albert Hall also functions as an arena for the likes of Cirque du soleil, they have installed swivel seats so at concerts you can comfortably angle yourself to the stage.
The hall used to be notorious for awful sound, but a few years back they added suspended baffles which work. Like Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, and unlike so many others, Natalie Merchant had perfect sound balance. This was down to playing quietly as well. These concert halls, used for symphony orchestras, sound far better with the sound down. She had a keyboard player with keyboards (with an organ sound sometimes), grand piano and accordion. The guitarist mainly used an acoustic guitar. The drummer used padded sticks or brushes much of the time, and sat on a packing case and played with her palms for some. It was a double bass, and that had the only conventional free-standing amplifier. Then she had the string quartet, two violins, viola, cello. When the keyboard player was using piano, I realized it was an “all acoustic instrument” show. Electric guitar was used very sparingly, and then gently. The double bass, as on her records, was absolutely cleanly articulated. Not a muffled or farty bass note all evening … which is a triumph of both playing and amplification. The band were fabulous. I noticed that on some, the drummer had a padded stick in one hand on the tom-toms and a normal stick on the other for the snare and cymbals. On the extreme end of extremely good drumming all evening.
(ADDITIONAL NOTE: I hate not listing the player’s names, but I couldn’t find them online, and when she announced them in the first half, I was standing up to let a guy out to the toilets, and also noticing that I was standing in spilled beer from the row behind, and that my overcoat was in it. Thus I totally missed the names. Fortunately, a friend e-mailed me with the line up above.)
As well as being an extraordinary singer, with such a deep, rich, powerful and emotive voice, Natalie Merchant swirled, twirled, danced and also seemed to be conducting the string section. There was a long flamenco song introduction to The Man In The Wilderness which saw her stomping away and flourishing her skirts which was great. She understands dramatic impact, and was dressed in floating black. For the first three numbers she had her hair up in a bun, then she threw off her top and released her hair to let it flow. In the second set, she came on with it in a pony tail, and did the same … kicking off her shoes and going bare foot at the same time.
As she said later, they hadn’t had a good day. She did three false starts on Maggie Said, opening the show. Apparently the next line just went out of her head. ‘I’m in real trouble now,’ she said. I suspect it was the Royal Albert Hall effect. However much larger other famous venues might be, there is a weight of history at the Royal Albert Hall, and it’s an intimidating view from the stage. Like most of the great singer-songwriters she doesn’t have an autocue with lyrics running. Once she got it restarted for the fourth time, she was seamless for the next two hours. Once the string section had left for the final songs of the first half, which were stripped down to a four piece backing band, she explained their bad day. Eleanor, the cello player, had found her cello split down the middle on arrival “courtesy of United Airlines.” Similar happened to a violinist last year or the year before. I know guitarists will bristle with indignation, but if you break your 1963 sunburst Fender Stratocaster (providing you have no custom electronics), you can go to a guitar shop and buy a new one, and though you may feel that a blonde 2016 model sounds different, it’s not going to be hard or unfamiliar to play and nor is the audience going to notice. I interviewed some violinists and cello players for an as yet unpublished ELT story I did about a cellist. There really is a mystic and physical difference and relationship to instruments of the violin family. It is a tragedy for a cellist. Natalie Merchant said they had had great difficulty finding a loan one, though at 100 yards from the Royal College of Music, where my car was parked, that seems strange. But cellists also don’t readily loan precious instruments. I once had a flight in Italy next to an apparently famous Italian cellist who had his instrument on the seat between us – he had booked a seat for it, he explained because the dryness and cold in the hold could so easily split the wood.
The string quartet left the stage for some numbers, staying off for those last four numbers of the first set. That meant a change of feel, starting off with Build A Levee, noticeably more rocking with tasteful electric guitar. That was followed by a short speech, with reference to current politics, and she said the guy causing all the fuss at the moment (i.e. Donald Trump) was both embarrassing and scary for Americans. She then said the next two songs were for him … appropriately Saint Judas (from Ophelia) and Texas. The keyboard player moved to accordion, and for one of them, the drummer left too. Now Texas is part of the group of four songs I play most, the beginning four of Natalie Merchant. It’s an adopted persona (playing a role) lyric, like Beloved Wife. It’s one to quote:
Gonna get what’s mine and wild horses couldn’t keep it from me.
Papa says I’m a golden child and the whole world is gonna fall at my feet.
It’s all coming to me.
Pumpin’ and a-suckin’ till the well is dry,
nobody’s booming in these busted times like me.
Down in Texas where the cattle don’t roam
oil is a-dripping and the savings and loans, they bleed.
When I get my little eye on it,
when I get my little mind on it, you best believe.
Oh my, it’s all coming to me.
Yep, fits Donald Trump all right. She added that when she wrote it George W. Bush Jnr was the one in mind. The first set finished with the title track, Motherland. She pointed out that they never normally took an intermission, but it was a Royal Albert Hall tradition. I’ll add that it’s a necessary one for the hall finances, given the generous provision of bars in the building. She pointed out that Motherland was appropriate for an American in the Albert Hall.
The second set opened with Lulu (Natalie Merchant). Like River in the first set, which is about River Phoenix, the reference is to film. Personally, I think of Gloria Swanson as faded star “Norma Desmond” in Sunset Boulevard, but it is about silent film star Louise Brooks, star of Pandora’s Box in 1929, right at the end of the silent era. Rufus Wainwright dedicated an album to her, and OMD wrote Pandora’s Box about her. The official Natalie Merchant video for Lulu has extracts from the film, and if you see Louise swirling on screen, you can see an inspiration. With The Artist on film, and the revival of Mack & Mabel in the theatre, Lulu fits right in.
Beloved Wife in the second set is the Tiger Lily / Paradise Is There persona song, or rather masterpiece, sung from the point of view of an elderly bereaved man for his wife of fifty years. It’s so poignant, that in some moods, especially late at night, I have to skip it. If you focus totally on the lyrics, you’ll feel tears welling up, or I do.
It was followed by Seven Years (Tiger Lily / Paradise) which is such a contrasting view of a broken relationship, after seven years rather than fifty. Damn you betrayer … how you lied. The emotional switch is powerful.
The Leave Your Sleep song, Nursery Rhyme: Innocence and Experience came next.
I had never realized, never having seen her before, that Life Is Sweet is the flat-out, full-on audience waving arms in the air anthem. I’d always loved it, I just didn’t know that it had so many on their feet and swaying! They seemed a little unsure of whether to cut for the encores there, a natural point, but carried on.
I’m going to pull out a tiny disappointment. On the last two albums, Simi Stone (LINK TO REVIEW) has sung with her on some key tracks and has toured with her. Barney Hoskyns starts his new book on Woodstock, Small Town Talk, with a chapter on the inheritors in Woodstock nowadays: Simone Felice and Simi Stone, both previously with the Duke & The King. Hmm, let’s add Simone to that premier league mentioned earlier, as the youngest member, but one fully deserving of his place. I’d guessed Simi Stone would not be on the tour from the set lists. If Simi were along, there’s no way you’d skip Jealousy or Go Down Moses. The other song with her, probably my favourite of all is Ladybird. That finished the main set, and as earlier on Carnival, Natalie Merchant brought on a backing singer. This was Breton-Welsh singer Katell Keineg (who has sung on Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles). She looked somewhat out of place in jeans and a top as the band had all dressed up, but has a sweet, delicate voice. Natalie introduced Ladybird by saying it was unfortunate that the music industry had collapsed (!) because people like her could have had a hit with this song. She is absolutely right, and the first time I heard Ladybird I thought it had number one hit record written all over it, from the doo-doo-da-doo chorus, to the lyrics to that incredible, high Beatlesque psychedelia orchestral climax. Katell Keineg sang every note perfectly, though she looked terrified standing stock still, and who wouldn’t be, standing on the rock where Moses stood, or rather on the stage where Dylan and everyone else stood. But the point about that chorus part is that it benefits from a soulful singer who really understands girl group backing / female backing vocalist at a visceral level, like Simi Stone (and gets into it physically), rather than a folk singer.
There were three encores … the show started at 19.30 on the dot, and finished at 22.10 with a 30 minute interval, and no support, so a generous 2 hours 10 minutes, though I think we’d all have happily sat there for as long as she was prepared to continue.
The first two encores were Break Your Heart (Ophelia) then Wonder (Tiger Lily / Paradise Is Here). Wonder has an initial guitar part hat makes you think you’ve known it forever from the very first hearing.
The last song was Kind and Generous (Ophelia) which several people had been calling for, so I guess with its na na na na chorus, it works like Life Is Sweet., and indeed Ladybird. She has the luxury of three natural enders.