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Natalie Merchant Sings Poetry at the Library's [ALOUD] Series: 4/22

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Natalie Merchant at the Japanese American Community & Cultural Center on Thursday.

Natalie Merchant at the Japanese American Community & Cultural Center on Thursday.
After a seven-year hiatus from the music business, pop-folk songstress Natalie Merchant has returned to performing to promote her latest effort--Leave Your Sleep--a two-disc collection of songs she adapted from the poetry from both obscure and well-known writers. Merchant took to the stage before an attentive--and somewhat obedient audience--on Thursday night for a performance at the 880-seat Aratani/Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo.

The sold-out evening was part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles [ALOUD] series, and proceeds from the ticket and CD sales from the evening went to support free cultural programs at the Library. So maybe that explains Merchant’s wardrobe selection for the evening: Gone were the prairie skirts and free-flowing dresses of yesteryear. She came out dressed in a black skirt and blazer with sensible shoes. She even poked fun at her garb, at one point moving a beverage cart and guitar case off center stage like a stewardess. (It seems that Merchant's still a particular performer who likes things the way she likes them.)

Merchant’s voice was in top form that night, singing a number of songs from Leave Your Sleep, accompanied only by a cellist and two acoustic guitarists on stage. Introducing each song, she presented a slideshow of photos of the texts and poets (Albert Bigelow Paine, Robert Graves, Laurence Alma-Tadema, Nathalia Crane, et al.) that inspired the music. At one point, she gushed over her childhood crush Robert Louis Stevenson, giving a lengthy history of the relationship between the poet and his bohemian lifestyle-loving wife, before going into the song “The Land of Nod.”

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The rapt audience was respectful and attentive throughout the mellow two-hour set-slash-lecture. We particularly enjoyed the livelier and humorous songs like jazzy “The Janitor’s Boy” and Merchant’s banter/criticism-couched-in-play with the audience. She joked about winning a Grammy for the “secular humanist pop category.” And she’s obviously not a fan of live tweets from concerts. At one point, she picked on a man taking video or pictures from his iPhone. “You don’t think I see that?” And another texting from his Blackberry in the front row. “Do you want me to hold it for you?” She finally relented and let the audience whip out their handheld devices for a minute to take as many pictures, videos and send as many text and Tweets as they could. But as she warned them--and the school marm outfit reemphasized the point--that she didn’t want to see any of the footage on YouTube. She told the audience that she was a firm believer that the performance is for a performer and the audience and not for “them” on the interwebs.

After two hours of quiet music, Merchant returned to the stage for a shorter set/encore taking a few requests and singing a few familiar tunes from her solo career including “Break Your Heart” and “Carnival.” With the crowd roused from their mellowness, singing along, she shared the last song singing with a fan pulled from the audience on “Tell Yourself” from 2001's Motherland. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s now a mother, but the song reduced her to tears at the ending lyrics--And there's just no getting 'round / The fact that you're thirteen right now-- ending the evening on its emotional highpoint. We only wish there were more moments like that throughout the evening.