Natalie Merchant , accompanied by longtime guitarist Erik Della Penna, played two shows at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22 & 23. I was at the Sunday night show and, having been a fan of Merchant’s for more than 30 years, I still can’t believe I saw her in a rustic barn that held a little over 200 people.
Hancock Shaker Village is a wondrous utopia that’s open from April through December. There are 20 buildings ( I went into most of them!), several gardens, farm animals, a fantastic gift shop, countless Shaker artifacts and much more spread over 10 lovely acres. Hancock Shaker Village was founded in the late 1780s and lasted until 1959. The property was sold to a local group that, thankfully, was committed to preserving its heritage. Click here for the whole story.
Natalie Merchant’s performance was held in a barn toward the back of the property. Photography was prohibited, understandably so, however staff did let me pop in during the daytime to snap a few interior shots. I was also able to take one quick one before the performance started and got a nice exterior one. I put them together in the collage below to hopefully capture just how small and intimate the space was. When I first made my way over to in at midday, I was quickly surrounded by dozens and dozens of chickens who were clearly living their best lives . They were making a bit of a racquet with their assorted squawks and it was a joyful noise, especially when combined with an orchestra of animal sounds coming from the back of the nearby Round Stone Barn.
The first time I ever saw Natalie Merchant live was on July 23, 1988 at what was then called Great Woods in Mansfield, MA. This was the 10,000 Maniacs “In My Tribe” tour. Robyn Hitchcock was the opening act! I had become a fan earlier that year when the album was released. And when I say fan I mean HUGE FAN. This entire album is still sacred to me. I damn near wore my vinyl copy of it out. I remember discovering the previous album “The Wishing Chair” and also managing to track down a copy of their 1983 debut record “Secrets of the I Ching.” I had never heard a voice quite like Merchant’s and over the next several years saw 10,000 Maniacs several times on tours for “In My Tribe, “Blind Man’s Zoo” and “Our Time In Eden.” One of the things I specifically remember about a Maniacs show at Smith College in Northampton, MA ( I went to Keene State in NH an hour away) is that it was on a cold, snowy night and upon seeing several fans without tickets to the sold out show pressed against the windows outside, Merchant asked security let them inside.
When Merchant parted ways with the 10,000 Maniacs, I remember experiencing a moment of worry because I couldn’t bear the thought of no longer hearing new material from one of the greatest singers, not to mention songwriters, of my lifetime. This worry was of course short-lived. On June 20, 1995 Natalie Merchant released her debut solo album, “Tigerlily” and I was indeed hypnotized and mesmerized by its first single “Carnival.” The follow-up was “Wonder” and it remains one of the most hopeful songs you’ll ever want to hear about overcoming obstacles. The third track that was all over the radio was “Jealousy.” All three of these tracks are solid tunes that have stood the test of time but it’s the rest of the album that spin my spurs even more beginning with “San Andreas Fault” and going all the way through to the closing track “Seven Years.”
And now I’m gonna say something that some Merchant fans might consider sacrilegious. Ready? In 2015 Merchant released “Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings.” Every track on the album was stripped down and strings were added to others, including “Beloved Wife.” The first time I listened to this new take on “Tigerlily” was on a long drive and I do declare….I like it better than the original. Now one could argue, quite well in fact, the the two versions are the proverbial apples and oranges and they wouldn’t be wrong. It’s all so subjective isn’t it? All I know is that I was moved almost to tears a few times listening to the stripped down versions of songs like “River” and “I May Know the Word.”
But I digress. This is after all a concert review. But wait, for those of you who aren’t as hardcore of a Merchant fan as I am, permit me to briefly mention her discography after 1995’s “Tigerlily.” In 1998 Merchant released the incredible “Ophelia” album and to this day, I still love the entire thing. This is the album that gave us “Life is Sweet” and “Kind & Generous.” And it’s also home to “My Skin” and “Effigy.”
“Motherland” with the single “Just Can’t Last” came next in 2001. “The House Carpenter’s Daughter,” was released in 2003, “Leave Your Sleep” in 2010 and a self-titled album in 2014. When she toured for that album I interviewed her in advance of her performance here in Portland, Maine. After all those years of being a fan, I was finally able to wear my journalist hat. Merchant was lovely to chat with. Read it HERE. I also reviewed that show and you can read that HERE.
OK. Back to the day of the show at Hancock Shaker Village. I had such a perfect time roaming the grounds and seeing historical preservation up close and personal. Several sheep and goats and cows posed for photos for me and the entire afternoon was picture-perfect. I think the most compelling part of the village is the Round Stone Barn. Every inch of it held so much history.
Night started to fall on Pittsfield as we stood in line awaiting the 7 p.m. opening of the barn where the show was happening. The moment came and I secured my aisle seat, about halfway back. In a space as small as the barn, this meant I was 30-something feet from the small stage.
I quickly made a few concert friends (I’m looking at you, Daina and Sven) and the magic hour of 8 p.m. arrived and after a welcome from a few Hancock Shaker Village staffers, the show began with “Weeping Pilgrim.” A few things became immediately evident: Natalie Merchant’s vocals were pristine, Erik Della Penna’s guitar sublime and the acoustics were damn near perfect as the duo made their way through the gentle, traditional tune with the lines “I weep and I moan and I move slowly, I’m a poor mourning pilgrim bound for Canaan Land.”
Merchant was charming, mischievous and hilarious throughout the entire show. Her first order of business was moving a couple of fans who were behind some of the barn’s support pillars to unobstructed seats. Throughout the 19-song performance she offered historical notes about The Shakers and told us how when her daughter was young she used to love hearing Shaker hymns sung to her by her mother.
Merchant also surprised many of us by including three tracks from the iconic 10,000 Maniacs album “In My Tribe” in the set. After a few lines of Jim Croce’s “Operator,” Merchant sang “Don’t Talk” and “Hey Jack Kerouac” back to back then she took an audience request later in the show and sang “What’s the Matter Here?” At the end of the evening she teased out a few lines of “Verdi Cries” (I died a little) and a bit of “Ophelia’s” “My Skin” before launching into the “Tigerlily” hit “Wonder.”
Here’s another funny thing that happened at this show. Most of the songs were played with Merchant singing and Della Penna on guitar. However for a handful of them Merchant sat behind a Korg electric piano and incredibly, gave it away at the end of the night. She told us she never liked the thing and showed off the many sounds it was capable of making. Without fanfare she asked if anyone wanted it and a fan up front immediately said yes and the matter was settled. When the show ended with “Kind & Generous,” Merchant unplugged the Korg, picked it up and handed it to the lucky guy who now owns a piece of musical history. At first I thought this was odd but then I realized that sometimes when you’re truly done with having something in your life you sometimes need the damn thing gone…immediately.
Natalie Merchant also told us something that most of us already know: She doesn’t play too many shows anymore. What I for one didn’t know is that she teaches music to kids in what she described as inner-city schools and clearly extracts tremendous joy from this. You know how you can tell when somebody really loves something because their face lights up when they’re talking about it? It was like that.
Natalie Merchant has been a favorite musician of mine for more than 30 years. She’s got a voice like none other and her songwriting is equally incredible. As a fan I’ve been fortunate enough to have met Merchant “in real life” I think four or five times thanks to college radio connections that got me backstage passes to a “Blind Man’s Zoo” show, a chance meeting on the street after a show in Boston and a pre-show meet and greet experience at a 1997 Lilith Fair show among a few other random times. She’s always been so kind and generous with her time.
The show at Hancock Shaker Village in that chilly barn was really something extra special. I hope to see Merchant again some time but for now, I will treasure the memories of this intimate show because I literally sat there the entire time almost in disbelief. That’s how good she was and that’s how awestruck I was to be seeing her there.
Here’s the set list from the 9/23 show along with where you can find the songs:
- “Weeping Pilgrim” (The House Carpenter’s Daughter, 2003)
- “Motherland” (Motherland, 2001)
- “Life if Sweet” (Ophelia, 1998)
- “If No One Ever Marries Me” (Leave Your Sleep, 2010)
- “Cowboy Romance” (Tigerlily, 1995)
- “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” (Leave Your Sleep, 2010)
- “Sally Ann” (The House Carpenter’s Daughter, 2003)
- “Build A Levee” (Motherland, 2001)
- “Golden Boy” (Motherland, 2001)
- “Don’t Talk” (10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe, 1987. Preceded by a few lines of Jim Croce’s “Operator”)
- “Hey Jack Kerouac” (10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe, 1987.
- “Carnival” (Tigerlily, 1995)
- “Break Your Heart” (Ophelia, 1998)
- “Saint Judas” (Motherland, 2001)
- “What’s The Matter Here?” (10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe, 1987)
- “The Bonny Light Horseman”( She sung this one acapella . Song is on the 2018 Lúnasa album Cas. Natalie is a guest vocalist on this track).
- “Maggie Said” (Natalie Merchant, 2014)
- Natalie sat at the piano for these. She played a few lines of “Verdi Cries” and then a bit of “My Skin” and finally all of “Wonder” (Tigerlily 1995)
- “Kind & Generous” (Ophelia, 1998)
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