Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Letter / Concert Review

The Letter (from the album Tigerlily)

If I ever write this letter
the pages I could write
but I don't know where to send it
you have vanished
heaven knows where you live
heaven only knows 

If I ever write this letter
bitter words it would contain
just an unrequited lover
wishing she had never
spoken your name
had never known your name 

But if I write this letter
the truth it would reveal
knowing you brought me pleasure
how I'll often treasure
moments that we knew
the precious and the few 

"I'm going to cry tonight," I told my husband as we ate dinner before last week's concert. "I know," he said, unaffected. "It's okay." For me, though, it wasn't a warning so much as a resigned acceptance of the inevitable.

I hate crying. I'm not a person who subscribes to the notion that there is such a thing as a "good" cry or that crying will somehow make you feel better. This is primarily for two reasons: 1) Within 15 seconds of starting to cry, my sinuses shut down the exits so fast I practically suffocate. This results in crying that is not only stressful but also extremely unappealing - cry snorting, basically. And then about 15 minutes after I stop crying, the sinus activity starts working in the opposite direction. That's as graphic as I'll get. 2) I rarely, if ever, feel better after I cry. I feel emotionally and physically drained and usually more upset after the crying than before it.

The problem with this, of course, is that I cry incredibly easily. It's something that's developed in the last few years. When I was younger, I could almost always maintain my composure. Even if my eyes started to fill with tears, I could somehow suck them back in. But now it's gone the other way. I can well up at record speed just thinking about any number of things, beautiful or tragic. It's like my super power. Super crying.

But four songs into Natalie's performance that night, as she reached the emotional apex of Beloved Wife, it was my husband wiping tears from his face. And Natalie too. But not me. I was moved. But I was not crying. And I felt pretty smug about it.

The concert has given me a lot to talk about. Today I want to share some of my impressions of the concert, but I'll be sprinkling in more details in future posts. Let's get started:

The human. One rule I set for myself when I started this blog was that I was going to avoid allowing my writing to be about anything other than Natalie Merchant's work, as opposed to Natalie Merchant the person. The reasoning for this is pretty simple - I don't know Natalie Merchant and know hardly anything about her outside what I've read in interviews. I've included observations about her personality only as it pertains to the songs I am discussing on any given post. I know it will sound a little (or a lot) pretentious to say this, but I just don't want anything on this blog to ever give off the air of gossip, or worse, hero worship.

That long-winded statement was basically my way of saying, "I'm going to cheat now." But just briefly.

Lately, every newspaper piece I read about Natalie and every concert review a reader emails me all mention the same detail - Natalie has gray hair now. It's kind of weird to me that it gets mentioned so consistently and it started kind of getting on my nerves, even though it's never mentioned with any negativity. I guess I just wondered why it was such a big deal. But lately I've noticed that I've been inextricably drawn to every image I see of an actress or female entertainer, in print or on film, that looks noticeably like she is aging. When I see an actress with wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, I find myself thinking, "She's so beautiful." It's just so rare anymore to see female celebrities that look like they aren't airbrushed and plasticized. They look so...human.

And so, sitting just a few feet away from Natalie that night, I could understand why people can't stop talking about the hair thing. It's fascination. And, I think, enthrallment. Natalie Merchant looks just like a member of the human race. I can't think of anything more beautiful than that.

The voice. Natalie sounded better than she ever has to me and I think the reason really has to do with the accompaniment and the setting. I especially marveled at her performance of Henry Darger. I can't think of any song in Natalie's catalogue that requires her to sing at so high a pitch. It was the first time I heard her perform that song live and I found my body actually getting tense, wondering how she could hit those notes now, some 10+ years after she recorded the song. Shouldn't it be harder to sing higher as your voice ages? I guess not in her case. She hit every note so precisely. It was amazing.

My favorite moment, though, was during This House Is On Fire. As she sang the words, "Start a conflagration like there has never been," it seemed like her voice vaulted into the ceiling, bounced down and landed directly in my chest. There are not many things that can literally give me goosebumps, but that sure did it.

The experience. There were a lot of individual moments throughout the night that contributed to it being such a magical evening. Standing in front of that incredibly gifted group of musicians, Natalie seemed more joyful that I think I've ever seen her look in concert. I'm so happy for her that she is able to perform in this setting. Towards the end of Verdi Cries, Natalie stood off to the side of the stage and just listened to the orchestra perform (something she did a few times throughout the night.) At the end of the song, she started enthusiastically clapping even before the audience did and rushed over to one of the cellists and kissed him on the cheek. It was cute to see this symphony performer's pensive expression change into delight and maybe a little boyish embarrassment. It also made me reflect on how so many well-known performers obsessively seek attention and show little public (or likely even private) appreciation for the musicians that make them look good. In contrast, Natalie is quick to step aside while others shine. I don't think there was one person in the audience that night that doubted that her appreciation and awe was genuine.

Something else funny that happened that night - when I took my seat before the performance, an usher hurried up to me and told me I'd won a special prize and to follow her to get it. I followed somewhat reluctantly, wondering if the San Francisco Symphony had some sort of timeshare program to pitch me. It turns out that what I won was a signed poster of Natalie. It was a very lovely picture, but I felt a little guilty about it. I'm not really an autograph person and knowing this poster would end up in the closet, I felt like maybe this nice gift was wasted on me. Then, towards the end of the concert, Natalie told a story about meeting the SF Symphony's Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, when she was 9 years old and getting his autograph, which she still has in her "box of special things." Sure, I'm not 9 years old, and the poster wasn't signed for me personally, but that story nonetheless made me think I should be a little less of a stick-in-the-mud.

Seeing Natalie Merchant perform is something that I've experienced precious few times in my life. For me, it is a life-affirming experience, a chance to spend some time tucked away in almost surreal beauty. I always walk out of the theater feeling more alive and it's a feeling that stays with me for quite some time.

The tears. Overconfidence always catches up to you. During the latter half of the performance, I recognized the first strains of The Letter and felt the areas around my eyes start to twitch, then my cheeks, and then the epicenter of all emotional fault lines - the chin.

It's a song that is more personal for me than perhaps any other that Natalie has written. When I was first living on my own, I used to listen to this song and cry, trying to figure out my own confused emotions about the 19 years that had come before and why some of the most important people in my life had abandoned me so completely. Sometimes I felt so eaten up with rage I thought I would break. But this song, in a small but significant way, allowed me to begin wrapping a small ribbon on those emotions. It helped me not to forget the moments that were worth remembering, moments where I felt safe, happy and protected. Those moments may have been relatively few, but they kept me from being consumed.

When I heard The Letter that night, I didn't feel the same weight of emotion that I used to feel. Time really does lessen the effect of so many of those old wounds. I wasn't crying for sadness. I was crying because of the beauty of the music, of the moment, and of the realization that this night would end soon and be just a memory of a moment shared with a stranger whose music has meant so much to me. I was crying because these words so perfectly expressed what I was thinking:

how I'll often treasure 
moments that we knew 
the precious and the few 


 Download The Letter at Itunes - The Letter - Tigerlily


  1. Jeff from AtlantaJune 25, 2012 at 6:51 PM

    Wow. Thanks Annie. Nothing else need be said. - Jeff

  2. Very well said! I wasn't at this show but I went to her performance in Raleigh with the NC Symphony and it was similarly magical!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Melissa. I'm so glad you got to see her perform with the orchestra in NC. I've waited a long time for the opportunity and it was well worth the wait. Hope we both get to see her perform again before too long!

  3. Lovely review. would love to see Natalie perform in the UK.

    1. Hi Lorraine -

      Thanks! I hope Natalie comes to the UK soon too. It would be great if you got to see her perform with an orchestra.

  4. Great review! I'm pretty sure at some point I will cry when I see her.

    When I first saw her with gray hair I was surprised. But I like it. She feels much more real to me.

    1. I just posted about it on my blog. AMAZING show. Although, I get weirdly emotional after seeing her. Maybe it's not weird. I can't articulate well at the moment. Ho-hummmm...