Natalie Merchant performs at Merrill Auditorium.  Photo by Robert Ker

In the 1980s and early 1990s, singer Natalie Merchant had a string of modest hits with 10,000 Maniacs, the college-rock, folk-pop band she was in at the time. Fans hoping to see those songs at her concert Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium went home with only one souvenir – a rousing performance of their 1992 song “These Are Days” – from those early days. Instead, Merchant focused on material from her solo career, including the vast majority of “Keep Your Courage,” her first record in nine years.

The compositions on that record, released last month, are among the most complex and rich of her long career, and to bring them to life, she brought an octet of accomplished players with her that included piano, guitar, drums, bass and a string quartet. The ensemble fit her catalog snugly, with the strings in particular providing a backdrop that constantly shifted like currents on the ocean and offered a perfect accompaniment to the distinctly warm alto of her singing voice.

Merrill Auditorium was an ideal venue for such a precise performance, as the acoustics serve such arrangements – and particularly the piano and vocals – beautifully. If you only ever listen to compressed music on streaming services, it can be revelatory to hear music like this as it’s supposed to sound. The songs all stretched along at a relaxed pace; rarely did the band pick up the tempo, despite that the audience relished the opportunities to act like they were at a rock concert rather than the home of the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Despite an often slow and steady tempo, the range of influences in her music was on display throughout. She performed songs inspired by Irish folk music (“Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience”) and Spanish balladry (“The Worst Thing”). She closed the first set with a gospel number – although filtered through her unique songwriting sensibility, she sang it to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. She sang everything with soul and with range, capable of going from a whisper to belting out a climax, wrapping her voice comfortably around the mature jazz grooves of songs like “Carnival” – she shares more musical DNA with a singer like Sade than their respective images might suggest.

Merchant made use of the whole stage, her arms and skirt throughout her performance in Portland. Photo by Robert Ker

Throughout it all, Merchant made use of the whole stage, used her arms to paint circles in the music and used her long, flowing skirt like a prop. She recently had a health scare with a degenerative spinal disease, compounded by a serious concern that she’d lose her singing voice after a medical procedure for it. Returning to the road with such ambition (other stops on this tour feature a full orchestra), relish and new material gives a sense that she considers the very opportunity a blessing.

The hits, including the ones absent from the set list, may have dried up ages ago, as trends shifted and as she aged into a mature, mid-life journey that rarely translates to chart success for women. Her pop songs in the 1980s and ’90s were unusual, even for the time – it is difficult now to imagine a song empathizing with Jack Kerouac’s mother or with the title “Kind & Generous” getting mainstream radio airplay – but once the pursuit of pop success was no longer a viable option, she pivoted into what appears to be more rewarding artistic pursuits. These rewards were in full bloom at Merrill Auditorium, a career full of blessings, some in disguise.

Robert Ker is a freelance music writer in Portland.

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