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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
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.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test