Sunday, September 27, 2009

Natalie Merchant at the Shaker Heritage Society

Today I met Natalie Merchant. Five words I couldn't be more ecstatic to write! Here's the story.

Saturday morning I flew from Raleigh to Baltimore to Albany, NY. I rented a car and drove straight to the Shaker Heritage Society, the organization hosting the event.

The story goes that Natalie was in Albany about 10 years ago, getting some repairs done on a car she was going to give to her mother. To kill some time, the dealership suggested she check out the Shaker site. She's a history buff, and although she enjoyed her visit, back then it was hardly anything to speak of. Fast forward a few years, and Natalie has a baby. Around age 3, she becomes obsessed with the Shakers (apparently after being exposed to them via a Ken Burns documentary on PBS--only Natalie's child would have such an archaic and esoteric fixation). Imagine a three-year-old singing one of their hymns over and over and dancing around to it, Shaker style no less. Natalie makes her a Shaker outfit and she wears it constantly, even insisting on wearing it to her first day of preschool. Then, apparently Natalie visited the Shaker site a few months ago and saw all the work being done to restore it, and offered her talents to help raise funds. So the benefit concert idea was born.

When I heard about it, I was intrigued, because this kind of venue is uniquely Natalie. I contemplated going, and wavered, mostly because it involves a flight, a hotel, and not-cheap tickets. But the more I heard about it, I was ever more tempted. I priced everything out and decided I wanted to take the plunge. I found out there would be three tiers of tickets. I settled on the middle one. Then they announced a tour of the grounds with Natalie herself, for an extra (hefty) donation. My parents graciously gifted me the funds as a birthday present so I could participate. Then they announced that the first show had sold out and a second was being added! I figured, I'm already paying all this money to get there, I might as well see her all that I can!

So anyway, I arrived at the Shaker Heritage Society (SHS) and toured the itty bitty (but very informative) museum, met Brother William the meeting house cat, and purchased a couple of things from the gift shop. The volunteer who rang me up was full of fascinating information--did you know that the Shakers were not granted conscientious objector status (and thus exemption from conscription) during the Civil War until they agreed to supply the Union Army with herbal medicines (including opium and cannabis) and provide a rocking chair for Abe Lincoln himself?

I walked around outside enjoying the bright blue sky and the crisp fall air. In the pasture were three oxen, one of which (the biggest, I might add) came over to pay me a visit.

Last night I didn't sleep well at all, too full of excitement and anticipation for today. I'd set my alarm for 6:30 am so I could check in for my Southwest flight home and wasn't able to go back to sleep. I didn't know what to do with myself. Finally 11 am rolled around so I could go into the little gift shop to get my tickets. (They were will call only.)

I'd managed to score fifth row on the side for the first show, and sixth row dead center for the second. They were sold over the phone only back in August (no online option), and it took well over 100 calls for me to get through, so I was grateful I didn't end up in the way back! SHS is a tiny operation--they have like 3 phone lines. This was the first event of this kind they've ever held, way beyond the scope of anything they've ever done before.

Back to getting the tickets (whoo, lots of tangents!) So the shop is attached to the meeting house, and I could hear Natalie rehearsing! I tried to sneak a peak but they closed the door. :( She sounded AH-mazing. Just a little teaser for what was to come!

I still had an hour until the tour, so I went back to the car and saw a gentleman walking around. We exchanged "hi's" and of course were both there for the same reason, so we hit it off immediately. Oh, let me tell you how satisfying it is to have a conversation with someone who has the same passion as you! Andrew and I are both Natalie nerds to the core, we had so much to talk about, it was nonstop gabbing. Shortly before noon we located Justin and his wife Carmen. Justin and I go "way back," as they say--back to the days of trading bootleg cassette tapes of Natalie shows--but we'd never met. He's an even bigger fan than I, if you can imagine. He goes to everything. Her performance with the Boston Pops? There. Her week at the Hiro in NYC? There. I WISH I could have gone to those!

Anyway, so noon rolls around and we're told that Natalie is finishing up rehearsal. Our guide, Starlyn, the executive director of SHS, begins speaking to the 13 of us about Shaker history. It really is interesting--you should read about it if you get a chance. About 8 after, Natalie emerges. Down the steps she comes, wearing a black trench coat, black scarf, and black boots, hair in a bun. I have a freeze frame in my mind of the instant I saw her. I'd told Andrew before, "I hope I don't gasp." I did. Thankfully she wasn't close enough to hear me. :) Sadly, though, she went to the back of the group, and pretty much stayed there the whole tour. And it wasn't much of a tour, really. We learned a lot, but we stood in one spot for 15 minutes, then moved to another spot 30 yards away for another 15 minutes, and then finished up back by the first spot. I mean, whatever, right, I wasn't there for the tour per se, I was there to see and meet Natalie. But she kind of made herself inconspicuous, so I felt like I had to sneak pictures even though I'd arranged with Starlyn weeks before to be "the SHS photographer" for the event. Nevertheless, sneak I did.

Natalie wasn't wearing any makeup and was squinting in the daylight so they weren't the best shots, but I was mere feet away from my all-time idol, so what do I care, right?!

So our time is up, and Starlyn says thank you to all of us for taking the tour, and Natalie starts to leave. I tap Starlyn on the shoulder and say, "Can I get a picture of you and Natalie?" Totally professional, right? It's for the organization! So she literally jogs up to Natalie and asks her to step aside. I take two quick shots and then thankfully someone in the tour group (Justin's wife Carmen!) asks Natalie, "Can we take a few pictures with you?" Natalie said, "Yes, as long as it's quick. I have to get back inside to finish rehearsing." So that began the parade of people posing with Natalie. Somehow I ended up being everyone's photographer--they all just handed me their cameras! Fine by me, I love it! Then there was no one with her and she said, "Come on!" to the group, with her arm out to the side, motioning someone to come get a photo. So I handed my camera to someone--anyone who would take it!--and Natalie asked me, "So where are you from?" I said, "North Carolina." Then we smiled for the camera (the woman didn't know how to work it, but with some coaching from me and the newspaper photographer, she figured it out--kinda). And that was it. I wanted to tell her how much I love her voice, and how much her songs mean to me, and how I've adored her for 17 years, and how much getting to meet her meant to me, but of course none of that came out, probably for the better, I guess.

Anyway, she left, and I looked at the photo of me and her.

Alas, it's quite overexposed but at least we're both looking at the camera and--AND--at least it didn't rain! Oh my word, I was so grateful that the rain held off! Talk about a blessing. And, of course everyone else had cameras too--both Justin and Carmen have iPhones, and they both took pics of me while I was with Natalie, so they both instantly emailed them to me. I posted Carmen's on Facebook. I took lots of pictures of Andrew when he was with Natalie--he'd met her before, and was telling her the story of it, so he spoke with her the longest.

After that, we got in line to go inside (btw, more rehearsal my hat! They were letting people into the meeting house not five minutes later!) We entered through the back (which is where the Shakers would let "worldly" people in to observe their prayer services) and I sat on the far left, fifth row. (Andrew had front row center!) There was an opening act, Shelving Rock, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why, until later I learned that one of the members is on the SHS board. They were good--a fiddler and a guitarist--but honestly, we were all there for Natalie. Gabriel Gordon and Eric De La Penna were her guitarists, and there was a cello player too. They came in first, through the front doors, and started playing a slow song. Natalie came in through the back, which waxed a bit bridal in my opinion. Come to find out later that she'd planned to have a candle and incense, but the fire marshal put the kibosh on that! When she reached the front, she started singing, and not more than 10 seconds into it, she stopped abruptly. The acoustics of the meeting house are such that you can hear every. single. sound. So the shutter clicks were quite disruptive! She gave a good-hearted lecture about being "in the moment," and she gave us all "a moment" to capture. She pranced around with a big smile on her face and we all furiously took photos. Some of my faves, although none are of a technical quality I'm particularly proud of:

Then we had to put our cameras away. This was contrary to her previous consent that we would be allowed to take photos for the first three songs. But, it's Natalie. You do what she asks.

She started another song (never finished the first one, btw, not that I knew what it was--perhaps it was the Shaker hymn). She did lots of poetry ones (she's been on a kick of setting old poems to music she writes), some folk ones from House Carpenter's Daughter ("Owensboro," "Weeping Pilgrim," Bury Me Under the Willow Tree,") and then a few "mainstream" ones, like "Break Your Heart" and "Kind and Generous." The whole performance seemed very disjointed. She interrupted herself in the middle of many songs, either to have someone tune their guitar, to comment on a passing airplane (we were across the street from the airport), to start some lyrics over, etc. She didn't seem to know what to do with herself, not having a microphone. Oh yes. The whole thing was completely unplugged. No amplification whatsoever. Which was supposed to be awesome, because the acoustics of the meeting house are amazing. When it's empty. Put 310 living, breathing, coughing, sneezing, squirming bodies in there on folding chairs, and the acoustics change--imagine that! So she was walking up and down the center aisle, going to the way back so they could hear at least something, her guitarists following her around like a three-person mini parade. It was kind of awkward, but Natalie just rolled with it, and was very good humored about it. She conducted two sing-alongs, one to "Tell Yourself," and the other to "Kind and Generous." It was funny how people used very soft voices in order to try and not drown out Natalie, but then she wanted everyone to clap, and that was the end of that. No hope hearing her over all that ruckus! But it was fun nonetheless.

Another feature of this old building--no ventilation. It was only 60 degrees outside, but it was SO hot and stuffy inside. Poor Natalie, wearing a wool jacket. She commented on her poor choice of clothing, and I wasn't surprised that for the second show she changed into a cooler dress.

I unfortunately did have a coughing spell during the show, but thankfully a) it was when Natalie was performing in the back, and b) I was seated right next to an exit. Water, cough drop, and a swig of cough syrup (from a film canister!!) and I was all better.

She was supposed to end at 3:00, but played till about 3:25--yay! Andrew and I went to Panera for a snack and drink and then back for the 5:00 show!

Oh my word, it couldn't have been more different!!!! This show made my life. I can die happy now. It was absolutely incredible. SO. She entered through the back again, but somehow this time, there were only like 2 camera clicks, so she didn't stop mid-song. She sang the whole thing, and again, I think it was a Shaker hymn, but I'm not sure. Hard to know since she did so many poetry songs. After the first song, she did the briefest little "camera moment"--nowhere near as flaunting as the first show--then told us all to put our cameras away. She promised there would be another camera moment later, but there never was. :( But you could tell she was in a different mood, she felt more in control, she knew what she was getting into and had a plan.

She danced more, and since she was wearing a flowy skirt it made a nice prop for her to fling around. There was still some spontaneity to the set, and she even did some different songs, like "Calico Pie" (a children's nonsense poem by Edward Lear), which she really seemed to enjoy.

By the middle of the show, it was getting dark outside. There were three lights pointed at the front of the room, but nothing in the rest of the meeting house. So when she'd venture to the back, Eric and Gabe in tow, she was in the shadows. Again, it added to the atmosphere of the venue. For "If No One Marries Me," she went to one side of the back and did a verse, then went to the other side and did the same verse, so they could hear. The audience got a kick out of this, especially since it's the verse that talks about getting old at 28 or 29, and buying an orphan girl to raise as her own (this is a poem from the Victorian era).

She didn't stop in the middle of any songs this time around...unless you count "Tell Yourself," where she tends to get choked up at the end. But it was a great moment. She commented that whenever she sings, "And there's just no getting 'round the fact that you're thirteen," all her painful teenage memories flood back and she can't help herself. "I gave those to God and he just sends them right back to me!" she shouted. And might I add that this took place literally three feet away from me. As I said, I had an aisle seat this time, and she walked up and down that aisle a dozen times, and each time she passed me I got to hear her voice--unamplified, pure, and natural--up close and personal. Oh my lord, it just gets to me! Something about the tone of it, the timbre, it is just so sublime. So even though I was in the sixth row, I felt like I was in the front row more than once. But never more than during her last song.

She ended with "Kind and Generous" again, and at the end there is this one bit that just repeats over and over--"Thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you." So we're all singing along, and she's walking down the aisle, and she looks right at me, and I look right back at her, and we're both singing, and she leans in close to my face--we're talking inches away--and sings, "Thank you, thank you!" Well, you can imagine my glee, my sheer bliss at that moment. As I'm writing about it now, I want to just scream: "AAAAAAH!" The thing is, she has lots of rabid fans; we are a hard core--but benevolent!--group, and that has to be awkward, knowing that there are these people out there that practically worship you. I understand why she's shy. But that one moment, just that small gesture, meant the world to me, and I am so grateful for it.