Natalie Merchant praised the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as the last string swells of the opening song of her Tuesday night set at Denver Botanic Gardens, “The Land of Nod,” faded in the quiet still air. How the CSO managed to pack itself into the relatively tiny confines of the stage at Botanic Gardens might be another example of random quantum in the universe. Merchant, herself, made more than one reference to navigating the narrow strip she had at the front of the stage which prevented her from dancing in usual joyous, manic style, calling it an “obstacle course.”
Merchant’s Lilith Fair sister Sarah McLachlan played a brilliant show at Red Rocks last summer with the CSO, but Merchant’s performance in the more intimate Botanic Gardens gave more connection to the audience, which would frequently shout out song requests, some of which she obliged.
Merchant’s show was divided into two sets, one with the full CSO, and one with some instrumentalists from the CSO. The set also balanced older chestnuts with songs from her ambitious 2010 release, “Leave Your Sleep,” which sets classic poems to music. With the CSO playing brilliant arrangements, even the older material, such as “Beloved Wife,” sounded fresh, as the horns perfectly punctuated parts of the chorus and verse, while “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May’s” lush string arrangement added a sweeping grandeur to the song.
At one point, venue staff could be seen frantically conversing near the bottom of the stage, apparently discussing whether to pull the CSO off the stage if the rain came. A full arc rainbow appeared to the east behind the stage, much to the delight of the audience. When someone in the audience pointed it out to Merchant, she said, “Where there’s rainbows, there’s rain,” adding, “Say a prayer,” as the winds whipped up, creating low level noise through the PA as the winds swept over the many microphones on stage. Though drops fell, no rain ever came, and Merchant’s short set break after a haunting “This House is on Fire,” during which much of the CSO packed up their instruments for the evening, proved a perfect chance for any threatening weather to move on.
On her multiple-song encore, Merchant engaged in playful banter with the audience and her guitarist, Gabriel Gordon, especially when she forgot parts of the verses to “Break Your Heart” and someone in the audience cued her with a few words. She then sang a part of the opening verse and chorus of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” getting the crowd to sing along with her.
At one point in her encore, Merchant talked about Erie Rising’s efforts to prevent hydraulic fracking (which drew one somewhat cynical shouted response from someone in the audience) in Erie, Colo. Merchant said she was donating her entire fee for her performance to the organization.
As her encore went on, Merchant went over the curfew, and she had to play her last two songs, “These Are Days” and “Kind & Generous,” a little more quietly, but the audience’s joy would not be abated.
The Land of Nod, Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience, Life is Sweet, Equestrienne, Beloved Wife, Gold Rush Brides, She Devil, Maggie and Milly and Molly and May, Butterfly, Verdi Cries, Spring and Fall: to a Young Child, This House is on Fire
The Man in the Wilderness, The Letter, The Worst Thing, E: Break Your Heart, Rocky Mountain High -> Annie’s Song, Tell Yourself, Wonder, These are Days -> Kind & Generous
Todd Radunsky is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.