Category Archives: 1995

Today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)

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Of Concerts Past: Emmylou Harris at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa., 11/4/1995

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The lights dimmed, curtains parted and a spellbinding “My Songbird” wafted through billowy, bluish clouds as if an ethereal creature in flight. Strumming an acoustic guitar, Emmylou Harris stood center stage at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa., a near-silhouette, surrounded by what seemed to be three shadows – Daniel Lanois on guitar, Darryl Johnson on bass and Brady Blade on drums.

First, though a little context: On September 26th, Emmylou released the Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball, an atmospheric album that departed from the country-folk terrain she’d mined for the previous quarter century. That’s a bit of an over-simplification, I know, but prior to Wrecking Ball she mixed and matched songs and genres within the construct of the traditional country-folk sound. At a show we saw in 1991, for instance, she was joined on stage by Chet Atkins, performed a bluegrass breakdown, and also sang Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” and Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” Wrecking Ball, however, and the tour(s) that followed swapped the country overtones for a thick and rich gumbo that was equal parts noir, impressionistic and heartfelt.

Here’s “Deeper Well” from a few weeks later:

And “Where Will I Be” –

Two decades on and my memories of the show are not so good, unfortunately. “Prayer in Open D,” my favorite song of hers, came early and was stunning.

And her take on Steve Earle’s “Goodbye” was even more masterful on stage than on album.

At the show’s end, Diane and I both walking out of the theatre open-jawed, blown away by what we’d witnessed.

One additional, non-music memory: Although we had excellent seats, as the picture of my ticket stub shows, we were not front row, but fourth. (It goes to the wacky way the Keswick names its rows.) In the row before us: a guy cradling a green knapsack in his lap that had two super-large microphones sticking out from either side. The result: a bootleg of the show is out there, somewhere, making the rounds…

The setlist: My Songbird; Prayer in Open D; Waterfall; Where Will I Be; Orphan Girl; Wrecking Ball; Pancho & Lefty; Goin’ Back to Harlan; Deeper Well; Calling My Children Home; Green Pastures; One of These Days; Every Grain of Sand; Sweet Old World; Blackhawk; Big Chief/Indian Red; Goodbye; Making Believe; The Maker; All My Tears; How Far Am I From Canaan; You Don’t Miss Your Water