The lightning, rain and clouds at Red Butte Garden were certainly the surprise stars of the evening, with Merchant constantly talking about the weather (no pun intended, 10,000 Maniacs fans), and the show getting off to a slightly delayed start due to a pre-show shower. But the unpredictable climate would not have been such a big deal if she had just let it go.
Alas, that was not to be, and the umbrellas and lightning flashes seemed to actually have an effect on Merchant and her band. More than once, the singer and her musicians veered in different directions during a tune, grinding things to a halt and requiring a re-start. The audience must have heard the opening of "The Peppery Man" a half-dozen times as Merchant, her guitarists and soundman worked out their kinks.
That song was part of a show utterly dominated by Leave Your Sleep, a double-length collection of poems/lullabies Merchant released this year. Her insistence on focusing on that new work for the entire main set of the was another factor lending to the odd vibe at the venue. How often do you see folks fleeing a sold-out show mid-gig, not because of the weather but simply because they weren't hearing ANY of the songs that caused most of them to buy tickets in the first place?
Merchant has nearly three decades' worth of songs to draw on from her solo career and from her years with 10,000 Maniacs, but she didn't touch on any of them until her encore. That's certainly Merchant's prerogative, and artists focusing on their new material in concerts doesn't bother me as much as most, but I heard grumbling about it in all corners of Red Butte Garden Wednesday.
The saving grace of sorts, despite the false starts, was Merchant's oddball charm. If she wasn't stopping the proceedings to point out the rainbow stretching across the mountains to the east of the stage, she was remarking on the stunning sunset to the west. She's got a sense of humor, to be sure, noting the "blonde children section" dancing on one side of the stage and instructing the brunette children in the house to stay on the opposite side. And she had a non-stop conversation going with the people huddled in front of the stage. Her dancing, as always, was manic and fun to watch.
Musically, the new material had a decidedly rootsy appeal, delving into old American music from folk-blues to jazz to ragtime on songs like "The Janitor's Boy," "Beezer's Ice Cream," "Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience," "The Man in the Wilderness" and "Adventures of Isabel." And when she got to the encore and inspired the crowd to finally, collectively, get to its feet, she delivered familiar favorites like "Wonder," "Carnival" and "Don't Talk."
This was my third or fourth time seeing Merchant, and it was easily the strangest, and least smooth, of all of them. But there was something perversely enjoyable about watching a show that always seemed to be on the brink of collapse, whether via a thunderstorm or Merchant's nerves. Either way, nature provided the best light show I've ever seen at one of her gigs. I'd pay to see that again.