As a self professed music nerd, it’s almost embarrassing that I don’t go see the San Francisco Symphony more often. We are really lucky to have a world class orchestra in are backyard, playing nearly every night. Davies Symphony Hall is also one of the most perfect rooms to experience live music in, where every seat has an excellent view, and the sound is near perfect. This is my first time here since I took my dad to see PDQ Bach in 2008. And it took a pop musician to bring me there. Natalie Merchant, best known as the lead vocalist for 10,000 Maniacs, isn’t your average pop singer, and the idea of that majestic voice backed by a full orchestra sounded like a perfect combination.
Merchant and her very large band opened the show with “In The Land Of Nod.” One of many pieces from her 2010 album children’s poetry set to music. The song was originally recorded with a full orchestra, so the arrangement was too much of a surprise. Merchant’s powerful quiver of a voice is still as strong as it has ever been, and, although she had a few mic issues in the beginning of the performance, it was only a minor setback. The combination of the acoustics of the room and the potency of our singer meant that she could easily fill the room without amplification.
The first “adult” song of the evening was also the first piece to really transform the song from it’s original “sound.” It was the second track off her second solo record, Ophelia. On record, it is a pleasant, optimistic piece of folk soft rock. With a world class orchestra like the San Francisco Symphony backing her, with all of their big brassy glory, the song was re-imagined as an anthem- a piece that really celebrates the joys of living.
In the days leading up to this performance, I found myself trying to predict which 10,000 Maniacs songs we would hear as done by a full orchestra. Sadly, we only got two songs from her original band as part of the symphony set. The first song we got was, however, the piece that I thought would fare the best in this situation. The roots Americana of “Gold Rush Brides”, to me, always sounded like it was begging to be played by a full orchestra. Sure enough, it sounded better than I ever could have imagined it. It was as if Aaron Copland had risen from the dead and wrote the score himself. Even more powerful was the classic film noir arrangement of her mid 90’s b-side “She Devil.” The song, easily one of the sexiest songs Ms Merchant has ever written, was simply brought to life by the big orchestra. Merchant slinked around the stage like a sexy ballerina while singing this song. Although, yes, she now has gray hair and a few wrinkles, she can still move with the grace, balance, and energy of a 20 year old. She embodied the character in the song perfectly. If I could vote for the next Bond theme, this would be it.
We were treated to one completely new piece this evening: “Butterfly.” This was a delicate song, written with the orchestra in mind. The harp took the lead, and it was light with a slight bounce. During one of the breaks, Merchant took some time out simply listen to the orchestra. She seemed more in awe than anyone else in the room of the music being made in front of her. The last song of the first set a track off her underrated and oft forgotten about 2001 record Motherland. The song was “This House Is On Fire.” Originally an aggressive, guitar driven reggae number, was brought to a whole new life as a Bollywood influenced showstopper.
After a brief intermission, Merchant returned to the stage with a much smaller portion of the orchestra behind her. We were reduced to just strings, two wind players, and Merchants longtime guitarist Gabriel Gordon and pianist Uri Sharlin. The biggest highlight of the second set was the most entertaining piece from 2010’s Leave Your Sleep, Charles E Carryl’s laugh out loud “The Sleepy Giant,” which had the biggest audience response of any non-hit she performed. She ended her orchestral set with a jazzy take on “The Worst Thing.” The highlight of this was a positively killer clarinet solo by clarinetist Steve Sanchez. He looked calm and reserved, as a dignified classical musician would, but the sound from his instrument was so powerful and energetic, that you knew he was having a ball.
After telling a tale about getting Michael Tilson Thomas’ autograph when she was nine, she let the orchestra go off for the evening to do a few more songs on just piano and guitar. And, where the bulk of the set was very organized and choreographed, this was incredibly loose. She started out by saying that they should play “Hey Jack Kerouac” because it mentions San Francisco by name (What about “San Andreas Fault”?), but it wasn’t practiced. Then guitarist Gabriel Gordon started playing it, and Merchant seemed shocked. It took a solid minute before she could regain composure and really sing the song. She ended up starting on the second verse, causing even more confusion. The messiness was a nice change of pace. We then got a gospel rendition of “Wonder,” followed by a spot on version of “These Are Days.” The three performers made for a short exit, only to be pressed for time on the encore. Instead of getting full songs, we were stuck with abbreviated versions of “Build A Levee”, “Don’t Talk,” and “Tell Yourself” before bidding us farewell with “Kind & Generous,” only, really instead of thank us, we should have been thanking her for a glorious treat of an evening.
Act I – Full Orchestra
In The Land Of Nod
Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
Life Is Sweet
Gold Rush Brides
Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
Spring and Fall: To A Young Child
This House Is On Fire
Act II – Strings, Harp, Woodwinds
The Man In The Wilderness
The Sleepy Giant
The Worst Thing
Act III – Acoustic Guitar, Piano
Hey Jack Kerouac
These Are Days
Break Your Heart
Build A Levee -> Don’t Talk -> Tell Yourself -> Kind + Generous