Home Live Review Live Review: Natalie Merchant @ The Kennedy Center — 6/30/23

Live Review: Natalie Merchant @ The Kennedy Center — 6/30/23

Live Review: Natalie Merchant @ The Kennedy Center — 6/30/23
Natalie Merchant performs at the Kennedy Center on June 30, 2023. (Photo by Rashad Polk)

Few artists are as well-suited to working with an orchestra as Natalie Merchant. Last week, Natalie was backed by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in DC. Over two sets, she performed songs from the span of her nearly three-decade solo career, and she even sang a number from her prior stint with 10,000 Maniacs.

Born in Jamestown, New York, Natalie Merchant’s musical career stretches back to the late ’70s. She first achieved popular recognition as the lead singer and primary lyricist for 10,000 Maniacs. In the mid-’90s, she split from the group, embarking on a solo career with her excellent debut LP, Tigerlily, which catapulted her to an even higher level of fame and critical recognition. (I understand why she had to leave 10,000 Maniacs; I grew up in a house with three maniacs, and I had to get out of there. I was one of the maniacs.) At the time of her debut, a number of female singer-songwriters were breaking out, like PJ Harvey and Liz Phair; Shawn Colvin would reach the top of the charts a couple of years later. Many of the songs on Tigerlily —  “Carnival,” “Jealousy,” “Wonder,” “Kind and Generous” — have reached the popular consciousness and are still recognized today.

Stream the official music video for “Kind and Generous” by Natalie Merchant on YouTube:

Natalie’s career as a solo artist has seen her undertake ambitious projects, both lyrically and sonically, like 2010’s Leave Your Sleep, one of my favorite albums. She set a number of poems for children and lullabies to music, and the music itself varied widely across styles and genres. While she may have roots in campfire folk, Merchant has moved far beyond  that, embracing wide-ranging instrumentation and a world of sound that’s bigger and bolder than any simple singalong to an acoustic guitar.

At the Kennedy Center on June 30, this show was her first appearance in the area since before the pandemic. Just before things were locked down in 2020, Merchant underwent major neck surgery that required a lengthy rehabilitation process. During the concert, she moved gracefully and easy, looking comfortable on stage as she swayed and danced with great energy. Having had several back surgeries myself, I enjoy seeing other people emerge from that struggle strong and joyful, as Natalie was throughout the evening.

Natlie did two sets with the NSO, beginning the first with “Lulu,” followed “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience,” which was adapted from a poem by Charles Causley. After the song, she removed her coat to cheers from the crowd, prompting her to say, “Had I known all that it would take for the audience to go mad was to lose my coat…” The next number, “The Worst Thing,” she described as “a love song,” with the audience laughing at the line, “It never lasts for long.” The set continued with “Giving Up Everything” and “Beloved Wife,” after which she declared, “We have sad songs aplenty.”

Earlier this year, Merchant released her first album of original material in several years, Keep Your Courage. She showed off the record, then sang one of the cuts, “Narcissus,” which was inspired by the Greek myth of the man who fell in love with his own reflection. She rounded out the set with “Ladybird,” “Break Your Heart,” and “Big Girls.”

Watch the official music video for “Big Girls” by Natalie Merchant featuring Abena Koomson-Davis on YouTube:

After an intermission, Natalie started the second set with “River,” written about the late actor River Phoenix, who died of an overdose in 1993. The set continued with “Frozen Charlotte” and “Ophelia,” one of the many songs in her arsenal that engage with feminist themes. That theme came out most fully in “Sister Tilly,” which was “written for the women of my mother’s generation. These are women that completely changed the world.” “Sister Tilly” was “inspired by a friend who died at the beginning of the pandemic at 83.” 

The second set also included “Spring & Fall: To A Young Child,” adapted from the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins and “The Letter” (not to be confused with the ’60s hit by the Box Tops. The audience cheered at the opening notes of “Wonder,” and she finished the second set with “Aphrodite” and “Life Is Sweet.” Everyone left the stage, and Natalie and her core band returned without the orchestra for an encore of “Carnival,” the 10,000 Maniacs song “These Are Days,” and “Kind and Generous.”

Natalie songs are absolutely gorgeous, and the orchestra made them even more beautiful. If the songs were at times said, they were poignantly beautiful and moving, with an undercurrent of hope and optimism. Natalie Merchant has emerged from both her personal struggles and the long pandemic as powerful a singer and performer as she’s ever been.

Here are some photos of Natalie Merchant performing at the Kennedy Center on June 30, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Rashad Polk.



  1. Thank you

    She is my favorite living female singer (Aretha was #1) and I am attending the Mountain Winery performance on 9/27 with my adult daughter

  2. Thank you for this review! I can’t wait to see her this coming Saturday in Bath. I last saw her at the Ophelia Theatre in Boston, USA in 1995 which was just fantastic.


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