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Natalie Merchant, Kansas City Symphony deliver a cinematic blend of pop-symphonic music

Natalie Merchant
Natalie Merchant Nonesuch Records

In the midst of her freewheeling encore Saturday night at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Natalie Merchant told the crowd of 1,600 that filled Helzberg Hall that the word of the night was “confluence.”

On this night, she said, the word signified two things: her audience, which comprised people from Missouri and Kansas; and her performance, which conjoined pop and symphonic music.

For nearly three hours, including a 20-minute intermission, Merchant enchanted her bistate audience with songs from a music catalog that goes back more than 30 years, to her days with the folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs.

For most of the night, she was accompanied by the Kansas City Symphony, conducted by James Bagwell, her longtime guitarist Gabriel Gordon and pianist Uri Sharlin.

The set list focused heavily on her solo catalog, which comprises six albums, including “Natalie Merchant,” released this spring.

Most of the full orchestral arrangements were sweeping and cinematic, sounding more like film scores than pop songs. Others, like “She Devil,” were more noir-ish and austere. That one was rendered mostly in piano, embellished with jazzy trumpet fills and wisps of brushed snare.

She played the first of a few Maniacs’ songs early: “Verdi Cries,” a lament from the breakthrough “In My Tribe” album, released in 1987. This arrangement was grander, but slower, more melancholic.

Afterward, Merchant told the crowd that British folkie Billy Bragg told her he would quell his fear of flying by listening to that song on his Walkman.

The first set included the allegory “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May,” plus a new song, “Butterfly,” which bore the pulse and vibe of a Nick Drake ballad. She ended with what she called the “world premiere” of a song she’d not yet performed live: “Frozen Charlotte.”

There was a sameness to much of the music in the first set. Tempos didn’t change much, and there was a lushness and sense of tranquility that was, at times, hypnotic. But her audience was attentive all night.

After the intermission, she returned with a smaller portion of the orchestra, plus Gordon and Sharlin. They accompanied her on eight more songs, including “Lulu,” which aroused some applause and a few cheers when she sang the words “Kansas” and then “Wichita.” Merchant explained after the song that the little Kansas town Lulu was from was Cherryvale, birthplace of Vivian Vance — Ethel Mertz to “I Love Lucy” fans.

The mood of the second set was looser and less formal than the first. But it was nothing like the encore, which was as whimsical as it was frayed and unhinged.

For the opener, Sharlin strapped on an accordion and Merchant sang, in Spanish, “Taco Bueno,” which was very recently written to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a memorable food-poisoning incident in Tulsa, Okla.

She followed that with “Wonder,” one of her biggest solo hits. Two songs later, she asked her audience whether anyone had attended a show back in 1985, when the Maniacs opened for R.E.M. at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. (Many had.)

So, after singing the chorus to “Radio Free Europe,” she rewarded them with a Maniacs medley that was arranged on the fly. After a short huddle with Merchant, Gordon started strumming the chords to “Hey Jack Kerouac” and she jumped in. But after a couple of verses, she called an audible, he removed his capo and they rendered a few verses of “Don’t Talk.” In the middle of that, she called for “These Are Days,” so the capo went back on and she delivered a slice of that favorite.

She followed that with a random cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hit “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” coaxing the crowd into singing the chorus, boisterously, and warning them it would still be stuck in their heads Sunday morning. (It was.)

They closed with “Kind and Generous,” a declaration of gratitude from her “Ophelia” album, which sent the crowd home feeling equal parts obliged and appreciated — another confluence in a night of many.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

SET LIST

Gold Rush Brides; Nursery Rhyme; Beloved Wife; Life Is Sweet; Maggie and Milly and Molly and May; Butterfly; Verdi Cries; Spring and Fall: To a Young Child; She Devil; The Worst Thing; Frozen Charlotte. Intermission. River; Lulu; Seven Years; Giving Up Everything; Vain and Careless; The Letter; Ladybird. Encore: Taco Bueno; Wonder; Carnival; Motherland; Hey Jack Kerouac/Don't Talk/These Are Days; Have You Ever Seen the Rain; Kind and Generous.

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