NATALIE MERCHANT has been in the business for the longest time. As she told an increasingly exasperated Glaswegian heckler on Wednesday night, "Chestnut? Sorry. I've been in a rock band since I was 12, so my hearing's shot." At 34, however, the former 10,000 Maniacs' singer is hardly an addled rock chick. The voice is as bell-clear as ever. The face just as striking - Minnie Mouse fleshed out by Gauguin.
Bundled up in a woolly cardie, hair in academic bun, she's every inch the American prim queen as she stomps on stage. But surprise! Now she uncoils her hair and strips to an earthy vest and skirt. "An' I made a woman out of me," she giggles. Later, when Welsh crooner Katel Keineg joins her for "Carnival", she insists on taking off her boots and tights. Like Cindy Sherman before her, this gal enjoys changing her costumes.
Ditto her music. Since leaving the Maniacs, Merchant has dabbled in various genres. Triple-platinum Tigerlily was full of bouncy funk. By contrast, the new album Ophelia is all refrigerated gothic. Listening to it is like spending a night in an oppressively plush hotel when you've been expecting a house.
Tonight, though, the studio seems miles away - her little five-piece endearingly unslick ("Don't I have the best band?" she coos, to which the obvious answer is, er, nope.) But it's all to the good. A little warmth has crept in, "Break Your Heart", "Thick as Thieves", "My Skin" - ethereal operas all - wrap themselves around your vital organs and squeeze hard.
Of course, the fans want the old stuff. "Well, we can do that," mutters Merchant, half-plaintive, half prickly. Claims she has trouble remembering them. And indeed, when sitting at the piano, the notes don't come easily. But she's not the only one with a faulty memory. She informs us she has discovered Vera Lynn and after a breathless snippet of song, she sets this happy war time scene: "Imagine this is coming out of a little BBC radio, you're huddled in Shepherd's Bush tube station and now you all start whistling." She's greeted by a wave of silence. "You don't know Vera Lynn?" Behind me someone boos.
So there we have it. We're dredging up her past, she's dredging up ours. And neither side likes it. Maybe that's why there are so many calls for "Hey Jack Kerouac". Maybe that's why Ophelia is dedicated to Allen Ginsberg. The Sixties - the folksy but hip Sixties - represent a past we're all comfortable with. When Merchant strays from this territory it's a jagged ride. Jagged, but unique.