Natalie Merchant Lights Up the Bowl

Singer/Songwriter’s Voice Was Enchanting

Natalie Merchant might have been the only person in Santa Barbara last weekend wearing long sleeves. Draped in a floor-length navy-blue dress, black cardigan sweater, and light-blue scarf, the acclaimed singer/songwriter looked like a librarian. Between songs, she took swigs from a bottle of Robitussin sitting on a stool next to her. But if the wondrous New Yorker hadn’t actually told her adoring fans she was fighting a bad summer cold, no one would have known. Her voice was as enchanting as ever.

Merchant, 53, once the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, sang, swirled, and mimicked conductors’ motions to her band for more than two hours. As always, she embraced her quirkiness. She took her shoes off, and appeared momentarily in her own world.

Her tour coincides with her recently released The Natalie Merchant Collection. The 10-CD box set “feels pretty good in the hand,” she told The Santa Barbara Independent last week over the phone. It includes music that has been sitting in her basement for decades. She tossed one box to a lucky fan on Saturday.

Toward the end of the show, many front-row audience members trickled to the stage to clasp her hands briefly. “I’ve been blowing my nose — keep that in mind,” she laughed. “There’s going to be a pandemic in Santa Barbara!”

Yet she appeared as though she could have sung late into the night. Just before she closed the show with an encore — the 10,000 Maniacs’ famous “These Are Days” — Merchant expressed disappointment she had to go: “Santa Barbara apparently goes to bed at 10 o’clock.”

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