(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
Last Sunday, I tripped back to 1999 via a favorite concert; this week, I’m revisiting the same year via one of my revered albums, Natalie Merchant’s Live in Concert. Released on November 2nd, 1999, the set collects 11 songs recorded five months earlier at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway.
The easiest way to break it down: Five Tigerlily songs; three covers; two 10,000 Maniacs tracks; and one offering from Ophelia. But that doesn’t do it justice. In short, it’s the kind of album that pulls you into its mid-tempo (and slower) grooves. It’s low-key and atmospheric, and less a career summary and more an artistic statement. The songs rise and fall as one.
The album opens with three Tigerlily tunes: “Wonder,” “San Andreas Fault” and “Beloved Wife.” Each is stirring in its own right, accented by gentle undertows that ebb and flow. A few songs later, on “Carnival,” the undertow grows strong and pulls the listener under.
That leads into one of the things her eyes may have seen while wandering around that street festival: poverty. “Dust Bowl Days” (from Blind Man’s Zoo) is an empathetic portrait of society’s oft-hidden underclass. It may not be the first 10,000 Maniacs song most fans think of, yet it’s here, and it’s as hypnotic and mesmerizing as “Carnival.”
The song selection is less about the hits than the feel, in other words, with further evidence provided by Ophelia’s title track in the stead of “Break My Heart,” “Kind and Generous” or “Life Is Sweet.” Back in the day, after all, it didn’t garner any airplay, so – on the surface – it’s inclusion is an oddity. As is one of her covers…
To my ears, Natalie’s reading of the David Bowie trippy classic, which was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is nothing short of tremendous – it takes us through the same secret doors down corridors as “Ophelia.” The same goes, to an extent, with her rendition of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” which finds her alone in a burned-out basement. At one point, the instruments drop out, leaving Natalie breathing the lyrics for a verse. It’s haunting.
As good as those covers are, however, nothing prepares one for her compelling take on Katell Keinig’s “The Gulf of Araby.”
Live in Concert was released at a time when the music marketplace was near the end of a decade-long expansion, with a slew of teen-driven pop acts topping the charts; it was a metaphoric October 23, 1929, in a sense, as the Napster-era crash was in the offing. The headwinds alone don’t explain why the album only reached No. 82 on the charts, however. I’d argue that demographics played a larger role; those who discovered Natalie during her 10K days or via Tigerlily had since become adults with adult concerns, and had less money to burn. But no matter. Twenty years on, it’s safe to say that – whether one’s a new or old fan – Live in Concert is an essential set.
The track listing:
(A live DVD culled from the same concert features a slightly different set. Unlike the CD, it’s no longer in print, but is well worth seeking out – used copies are available on both Amazon and Ebay.)