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Natalie Merchant Impresses At Kleinhans Music Hall

BUFFALO – Jamestown native Natalie Merchant packed every seat in giant Kleinhans Music Hall Saturday evening, with a crowd that cheered and hooted and stayed more than an hour after the Buffalo Philharmonic’s part of the performance had ended, while Merchant ”jammed” with only her pianist and guitarist.

The singer’s powerful mezzo soprano proved once again to be one of the most versatile instruments in the business. She could coo a lullaby, then belt out a powerful gospel rejoicing, and every sound in between.

The concert was a reviewer’s nightmare. The printed program gives the singer’s name, then that of the guitarist – Gabe Gordon – then that of the pianist – Uri Sharlin, and finally the conductor – Matthew Kraemer. Then it says ”Program to be announced from the stage,” and nothing more. But, of course, it wasn’t announced from the stage. I think she actually named two of her songs, and since my seat was far in the back of the giant hall, beneath the balcony, I couldn’t make out the names she spoke.

So I can’t name the songs or tell you if anyone but she was the composer of them, nor who arranged them for orchestra, although whoever did it, did a great job.

She did name one arranger: Stephen Barber. Or, it could have been Steven Barden. Whoever it was, she likes him, and he did a beautiful job of matching her wonderful voice to the many colors and forms of the orchestra.

Merchant looked elegant, yet cool, in a street-length, little black dress, over bright purple stockings. She started the concert wearing a purple stole, a couple of shades lighter than the stockings, but she took that off during the third song and didn’t wear it again. What she did do, besides singing just wonderfully, was move. She marched back and forth across the apron of the stage. She twined her hands and wrists, like a flamenco dancer, and she lifted her skirt and swayed it from side to side, like the latest Carmen from the Met.

Until she was nearly halfway through the first half of the program, she didn’t say anything at all. Suddenly, the dam burst, and she asked the audience for information about a former Buffalo nightclub in which she used to sing: the Continental Club. She reported she was dragged out of the club by the police, because they learned she was only 17 at the time.

She told stories such as the one in which she was offered an opportunity to sing in Buffalo, but she only had money for the bus ride up to the city, so she ended up trying to hitchhike home, only to end spending the night on the beach of Evangola State Park.

She talked about first coming to Kleinhans to hear the Philharmonic with her mother at the age of 9. She said last week, when she sang with the San Francisco Philharmonic, she told the orchestra’s artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, that she had heard him conduct when he was 25, and she was 9, and he was one of only two musicians she had ever asked for an autograph. Then she introduced him to her 9-year-old daughter.

The audience clearly loved her and her many past recordings. They sang along with the classics and hooted with glee over the new songs, including one which she said was being performed for only the second time ever.

Three times, she seemed to be about to end the concert, but the audience stayed and cheered, so she came up with more, and when she had exhausted all the orchestra arrangements which she had, she gave them the rest of the night off, and went on jigging and keening and telling her stories of Buffalo and Jamestown and days gone by, until past 11 p.m. I loved every minute of it.