Backed by a 20-piece symphonic ensemble, the ex-10,000 Maniacs frontwoman, gray-haired and lovely at 49, stepped onstage … and botched her intro. “Welcome for coming,” she said. Realizing her flub, Merchant hilariously experimented with an Eastern European accent before launching into string- and horn-laden chamber-pop versions of songs culled from 2010 children’s-verse album Leave Your Sleep. She also rendered a half-dozen solo-career tunes from 1995’s Tigerlily and 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter.
It was an intimate, casual, simmering performance punctuated by Merchant’s crying bouts that, for reasons I can’t explain, enriched the material. Her baroque yet soul-wrenching version of “Beloved Wife,” about a widower who longs to join his recently deceased wife of 50 years, was achingly gorgeous. And when Merchant, voice cracking, sang Would it be wrong if I should just turn my face away from the light, go with her tonight?, my heart splintered, too. The real treat, though, was hearing the debut of two new songs—including vaguely anti-war, staggeringly powerful “The End”—from her forthcoming album. Despite a stripped-down acoustic guitar/piano/conga encore in which she struggled to recall lyrics and had to abort “Frozen Charlotte” and (yikes!) “Suspicious Minds,” her good humor and pluck ensured everyone left satisfied with one of America’s greatest living songwriters—symphonic-rock or otherwise. ★★★☆☆