Pop Live: Natalie Merchant Civic Hall, Wolverhampton

I like Natalie Merchant. Bjork may be wilder, PJ Harvey more scalding, Alanis Morissette has got a better marketing campaign, and Tori Amos has a piglet clamped on to her breast. But Natalie Merchant has got... what?

Let's examine the evidence from Wednesday night's show in Wolverhampton. She's got a band in desperate need of rehearsal: false starts, lacklustre playing, ugly work from a pretty drummer - all in the opening number. She's got an audience who might be in danger of tapping a foot to the music if somebody would only confiscate their Prozac prescriptions. They would chomp the heads off live wildebeests rather than heave themselves up and dance. (When Merchant finally tempted a few of them into the aisles during the encore, they were the ones with all the rhythmic capabilities of a conga line in an old people's home - isn't that always the way?)

She's also got dance moves handed down from Michael Stipe, like that thing where he divides the air up with a karate-chopping hand. And she has a line in banter that's as thrilling as her fans. "This is a nice place to play. Do you agree?" Pause. "We were in France a coupla days ago. We played this song there too." Pause. "I'm low on patter tonight." Snooze.

And she's got her voice. That voice. It's a pity that Kellogg's Corn Flakes beat her to the tag-line - "Have you forgotten how good she is?" - because it would have been perfect for her. The longer those albums by her former band, 10,000 Maniacs, rest at the back of your memory like guests that you wish you hadn't invited to the party, the more you forget the devastating, rejuvenating, white-hot power of that voice, with its twang and sustain, and its terrific density - it's a voice that you could wade through, or sleep in.

It can work miracles. The new single, "Wonder", is essentially a pleasant, airy dollop of Angel Delight. But Merchant's total conviction, the way she hurls her body, heart, lungs and all other major organs into the music, lifts the song high above the rooftops. She even makes the "ooo-ooh" bit sound profound.

I think Merchant has been obscured by the awful mediocrity of 10,000 Maniacs. They were the sort of band you used as a barometer for picking your pals; you know the sort of thing - you wouldn't want to give your home phone number to anyone who likes kd lang, Red Dwarf or 10,000 Maniacs.

But her solo album, Tigerlily, is the most desperately moving work of her career. And her new-found solo status has done her back catalogue no harm: she treats the songs from the old days ("That other band I was in," she goofs, "I can't remember their name") with a fury that at last deserves the description "maniacal" after all these years. "Eat for Two" is slowed down, chant-like in its haunted melancholia. You haven't absorbed its full despair until you've seen Merchant thump at her belly with balled- up fists as the line "My folly grows inside of me" leaves her lips like a dying breath. It's the blues all right - the baby blues. "These are the Days" travelled in the opposite direction, toward calypso and jazz, while Merchant travelled around the auditorium on a little jog.

The band had picked up speed too. The guitarist Jennifer Turner was finger- picking good, with a knack for long and winding guitar solos that should earn her an 18-night residency at the Royal Albert Hall. Even Peter Yanowitz had loosened up, so that by the end you liked his vigorous drumming as much as you liked his face. At two hours, it was all too loose. The covers - "Son of a Preacher Man", a tepid "Fever", and a Joni Mitchell mini-medley abandoned "because her melodies are impossible" - were perfunctory. But "Ode to Billie Joe" was dark and deadly, with funk and swamp-rock trappings. Time to throw your preconceptions off the Talahassee Bridge.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style