Natalie Merchant @ The Hammersmith Apollo

She was over in the UK to perform her new album, “Leave Your Sleep”, the first for seven years. It’s a remarkable piece of work, where she sets to music her favourite poetry from a whole raft of British and American poets based around the theme of ‘Childhood’. Between each song on Saturday night she took a few minutes to set out her reasons for choosing each poem and gave us a brief biography of the author, as each of them looked down on the audience from a big screen at the back of the stage as she sang. The breadth of the musical genres that were covered was remarkable too, although we didn’t really get their full impact as she is only touring with a cut-down group consisting of two guitarists and a cellist. The styles of the songs range from sea shanty to reggae via blues, as well as tunes that wouldn’t have been out of place at a good old-fashioned hoe down!

It was an absolutely mesmerising performance as she used her soft, breathy vocals to their maximum effect, and sitting up in a very warm and stuffy circle both my friend and I were drifting off at times – perhaps it was the childhood tales of sleep and lullabies that did it! Her two encores roused us out of our stupor though, the first turning into a completely random retrospective of some of her very early material as she struck up a ongoing dialogue with lots of members of the audience and struggled to remember lyrics she probably hasn’t sung in twenty years, as people shouted and clapped in encouragement. Returning to the stage for a second time we were then treated to some of the material by which she is best known, with songs such as ‘Don’t Talk’ from the 1987 ‘In My Tribe’, and ‘These Are The Days’ from the 1992 recording, ‘Our Time In Eden’, both of which are from her time as lead vocalist of the 10,000 Maniacs, the band she left in late 1993.

Just a final note on the new album, ‘Leave Your Sleep’. It’s available in both single and double disc versions and, given that the latter has twice as many poems set to music, and also includes a small nicely presented hardback book with the poetry for each piece reproduced alongside portraits of the poets with short biographies, I think it’s worth spending a few extra pounds to get the double album. Here’s one of the tracks on YouTube which I’m sure will whet your appetite…