Gig review: Natalie Merchant at Kings Hall, Ilkley

Natalie Merchant with Erik Della Penna at Kings Hall, Ilkley. Picture: Gary Brightbart
Natalie Merchant with Erik Della Penna at Kings Hall, Ilkley. Picture: Gary Brightbart
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The last time Natalie Merchant played in the UK, in support of 2015’s Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings, she brought a full backing band and string quartet. In reaction to this, the former 10,000 Maniacs front-woman has returned to perform at a handful of intimate, picturesque venues with just long-time partner and guitarist Erik Della Penna.

The unplugged format allows for greater spontaneity and audience interaction, with songs randomly chosen from a scattered pile of paper. This informal roulette, which draws on material from across her four-decade career, isn’t infallible. At one point she swaps songs to lighten the mood, and at another she changes the order to “accommodate my need to stand,” having started the evening in a wooden chair beside a coffee table.

The stage set initially encourages formality, with Merchant looking rather prim and reserved in a knee-length black dress. Sitting with her hands on her lap and her gaze away from the audience, she remains a largely static presence during opening track ‘Maggie Said’. As the ‘Summer Evening With…’ progresses, however, she relaxes and punctuates each song with flowing hand gestures and gyrating dance.

Her banter becomes equally relaxed, joking about local store Duttons For Buttons, giving an impromptu acapella version of Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and declaring that ‘Motherland’ is ‘our anthem’ (“The lust and the avarice / The bottomless, the cavernous greed”).

This provides light relief to her literate lyrics, which are threaded with an American gothic sensibility and regularly borrow from poetry (‘Nursery Rhyme Of Innocence And Experience’ being one of three songs that set to music the words of others). Her conversation also contrasts with her at times intense delivery, breaking off ‘Tell Yourself’ as she struggles to finish the words (“Who told you that nothing about you is all right?” she addresses a teenage girl).

The set wobbles towards the end, when Della Penna exits the stage and she moves to an electric piano. After ninety-minutes of stately, finger-picked indie-folk the change of instrument is welcome but, undecided over what to play, she gives a fragmented medley of choruses and verses from half a dozen tracks.

She more than recovers from this minor slump during the encore’s final song. Perched on the edge of the stage, she sings ‘Kind & Generous’ as she shakes hands with a stream of fans as she offers thanks “for your generosity, the love / And the honesty that you gave me.”