Judge Joel Pearce finds Merchant more intimate and less rock goddess.
"Even though we're surrounded at times by hopelessness or helplessness, we shouldn't feel like we have no hope, and that we can't hope."
Some musicians shine in front of 10,000 screaming fans in an arena. Big rock concerts have become the preferred venue for famous music acts, because they can reach the largest number of fans that way. Rock stars with enough stage presence and charisma can shine in these situations.
But not all famous musicians belong in such rough, noisy venues. The VH1 show was designed to let fans see their favorite musicians perform in a smaller, more intimate setting. They are given the chance to speak from the heart, explaining how they came to write their most famous songs. They can talk quietly, knowing that they won't be drowned out by an army of shrieking teenyboppers.
This is a perfect way to experience a performance by Natalie Merchant. She relishes the chance to talk personally about her music, and her low-key, laid back style is well suited to the venue. Fans of her music will be grateful for a chance to hear what lies behind some of these songs. At times, these descriptions are cliché ridden, but overall I have few complaints. After all, none of Natalie Merchant's songs are complex musical puzzles that need to be unraveled. Their meanings are already clear. The VH1 show is simply an opportunity to learn what in her life inspired her to write them.
There are six tracks in all. The majority of these are from Merchant's solo albums. "Carnival," "Kind and Generous," "Break Your Heart," and "Wonder" fit into these categories. They are also clearly the songs she is most comfortable performing, though for some she doesn't have a whole lot to say. That said, her musings about "Wonder" are impressive, as she gets a lot more personal. The other two songs are from earlier in her career, while she was fronting 10,000 Maniacs. The explanations for "What's the Matter Here?" and "Verdi Cries" are her most personal and in-depth. It quickly becomes clear that Merchant genuinely stands for the issues she addresses in her songs, and that sincerity is probably one of the main qualities that endears her to her fans.
Her performances of the songs are excellent. The band is tight, probably aided by the smaller venue, with a smaller sound system and no single direction to perform in. We get to watch them communicate as they play, both with each other and the audience. The sound quality is excellent, with rich bass, clear vocals and a pleasing mix. There are two tracks on the disc, the original Linear PCM and a mix up to Dolby 5.1. The surround track has more depth, but it feels somewhat artificial. The PCM track has more clarity, though either is a fine choice. The video quality of the disc is fine, a straightforward recreation of the original 1.33:1 framing.
My one complaint about the disc is the incorrect information on the cover. The disc claims it is the extended cut of the concert, but the 43 minute performance is exactly as it was first broadcast. There are two bonus tracks, but even that is slightly misleading. The first of these is the full performance of "These are Days," the first song in the concert that is mostly cut off in the full broadcast. The other bonus track is "Life is Sweet," with its own description from the concert. Oddly enough, her explanation about "Life is Sweet" is my favorite on the disc, as she cuts loose a little, makes some jokes and discusses the evolution songs go through as they are written. Fortunately, the disc comes with the option to watch only the music, as I'm sure even Merchant's most ardent fans won't feel the need to watch the descriptions numerous times.
Fans of Natalie Merchant will probably find this VH1 Storytellers well worth adding to their collections. The opportunity to get a solid concert and hear musicians discuss their work is rare, and both aspects of this performance are handled well. Less serious fans will have to weigh how much is actually included on the disc. After all, there is only about an hour of material on the disc, and only a little more than half that of actual music. If you're just a little curious about the disc, a rental might be a better call.
Rhino should be a little more careful with their DVD cover claims, but
Natalie Merchant has put in a fine performance. Not guilty.
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