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Last week I went to a show that I normally might not have attended. But you have to step out of your comfort zone once in a while, right? You see, my girlfriend is a huge Natalie Merchant fan. You remember Natalie Merchant, don’t you? She spent over a decade as the front woman and primary lyricist for the alt-rock band 10,000 Maniacs between the 80s and 90s before embarking on a solo career that has produced eight albums, including her latest, Keep Your Courage, which was released just last month.

keep your courage merch

10,000 Maniacs were one of those bands that were kind of outside my periphery. I was a teenage boy with way too much angst to appreciate their quirky, folky sound. Stuff I’d dismiss as “art school music” while blasting my metal and punk and defiantly making horned hand gestures. When Merchant parted ways with 10,000 Maniacs in 1993 they were arguably at the top of their game. Their last work together was the TV broadcast and subsequent album release of their performance on the old MTV Unplugged show. It included the band’s highest charting single, “Because The Night”, a Bruce Springsteen penned track originally recorded by The Patti Smith Group. Even I couldn’t ignore how good that cover version was. Natalie Merchant’s vocals were so melodic and energetic that you couldn’t help take notice.

My girlfriend, Christy, on the other hand, has been a Natalie Merchant fan for decades. She loved 10,000 Maniacs in high school and Merchant’s solo albums were the soundtrack through most of her life. Through college. Through good times and bad. She even named her only daughter Natalie. So, when we saw that Merchant was going to be playing the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, I knew I had to score some tickets. You see, although Christy has been a huge Natalie Merchant fan, she’s never in all these years seen her perform in-person. Now, as someone who’s a legitimate concert veteran with tons of shows under his belt, that was kind of mind-blowing to me. If I loved an artist as much as Christy loves Natalie Merchant, I would’ve made it a mission to see her live. My short list of bands I love that I’ve never seen live is quite short, but I forget that not everyone is as avid a concert goer as I am. So, chalk one up for me for being a considerate, attentive boyfriend. Even though I’d recognize maybe three songs the entire evening, we were going to see Natalie Merchant.

Michigan Theater

This was only my second visit to Michigan Theater, but what a great venue. The 95-year-old, 1600-seat theater is truly a gem and a keystone in downtown Ann Arbor. It was the perfect spot for the show we were about to see. Now, here’s the thing about the show we were about to see. Unlike the shows I usually attend, this wasn’t going to be screaming guitars in front of a wall of sound. Not even close. Merchant’s song catalog is folksy and jazzy and mellow and, although she headed up an alt-rock band, you’d be hard pressed to recognize that judging from the audience in attendance. An “older” crowd is a polite way of putting it. I felt a bit out of my element. I was even “shushed” by the d-bag couple sitting in front us. Why, you ask? It wasn’t because I was drunk and disorderly and dropping f-bombs or anything of the sort. I know how to act right in polite company. Promise. I was quite sober and literally making casual conversation with my girlfriend. I guess I’m unintendedly loud? Or maybe these aforementioned d-bags thought they were at a play or something. The thing is, they weren’t the only ones. Perhaps I’m being too judgmental. Maybe the shows I usually attend are a bit more raucous by nature. But there was a lot of silence in that room until the crowd finally began to make some noise toward the end of the show.

Natalie 1

Now, let’s talk about the show. It started off unsettlingly when no sooner did she hit the first verse of the first song, “Lulu”, than there was an audible “pop!” that sounded to be like a blown stage monitor. It caused her to walk off side-stage for a few moments, and when she returned, she joked that it was something about the age of the theater. After that solitary snafu, the show went on without a hitch. Natalie Merchant and the musicians she had on stage with her, including a string quartet, were just spot-on. Merchant had some concerns about her voice a few short years ago when she had to have emergency surgery due to degenerative spinal disease. Doctors had to move her vocal cords aside to repair the damage to her spine and she reportedly couldn’t sing afterwards. But, here at Michigan Theater, her voice was fantastic and held strong throughout the nearly three-hour show. There was no opening act. There were no frequent escapes off-stage while the band noodled about without her. She was front and center, twirling and grooving to a setlist that spanned her entire solo career. 10,000 Maniacs fans were treated to three songs from her former band including the show closer, “These Are Days”, which finally brought the kind of audience participation I’m used to at a show. It really was a strong finish and I could understand why Christy was such a big fan of hers. Certain artists connect with you and the ones that are artistically sound, like Natalie Merchant, give you all the more reason to appreciate them.

Natalie 2

As for my girlfriend, how did she enjoy seeing her long-time favorite artist for the first time? Well, she had tears flowing for the first two songs. She sang along with conviction. She whispered, “I love this song” to me a number of times. I think I enjoyed the show more because of how much she enjoyed the show. And it further proved to me what I’ve always held true. Don’t hesitate when it comes to buying those concert tickets and seeing that band/artist. Live music is enriching in so many ways. You get to feel the energy and the emotions. Enjoy that personal connection with the performers. Feel a sense of community with those around you who are fans too. Even the d-bags who want you to “shush”. There are few experiences like the live music experience and you’ll find that you’ll have a great time even if you have to get out of your comfort zone to do so.

Jonel & Christy

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