I’ve been a Natalie Merchant fan since the mid-80’s, back in her 10,000 Maniacs days. I’ve seen her perform dozens of times, and have collected nearly every recording she has ever released. My former wife used to assume I had a “thing” for the artist, but that was never true. I simply am drawn to her music, the thought-provoking lyrics and of course, that unforgettable voice.
I’ve played her songs all the time, so it’s not surprising my kids have come to appreciate her too. My son, though, has become such a fan that he at times has played her music to the point where even I have asked him to play something else. He, much like me, has fallen under the spell cast by her one-of-a-kind voice.
A few days ago I learned she was playing in Santa Ana on May 9th, and instantly bought tickets. I didn’t tell Hayden, I left it as a surprise. I took both kids to see her in San Diego two years ago, and he has wanted to see her again ever since. This was going to be nice surprise.
I had no idea how surprising the night would be.
The Yost Theater was our destination, and en route, Hayden was pestering me for information on where we were going. He saw “Yost” on the directions I’d printed out, and asked what it was. I jokingly said it was Y.O.S.T. – an acronym for Youth On Spiritual Trek. He wanted to flee the car.
“Take me home,” he said. “Please.”
“Relax,” I said. “Trust your Dad.”
We arrived at our destination and parked a block from the venue. When he saw the marquee, he started bouncing, completely excited, and clearly relieved that we weren’t attending a Y.O.S.T. meeting
We lined up for general admission and chatted with the other fans assembling early. Natalie Merchant concerts bring out an interesting cross-section of society – every social demographic is represented in the audience, testament to her wide-ranging appeal.
We got in the tiny venue and scored space at the edge of the stage. When the lights went down and the band walked out, I was surprised at the change in Natalie’s appearance. Her silver hair reminded me that I’ve been going to her concerts for nearly three decades, and I’m a lot grayer than back then too. But when she sang, her voice was as clear as ever. Just beautiful.
At one point, an hour into the show, Natalie spied Hayden near the edge of the stage and spoke to him.
“Aren’t you a little young to be out this late?” she asked. “Is it not a school night in California?”
Hayden, shocked to have her address him directly, blurted in reply: “It’s okay!” And then, “I love you!”
So much for playing it cool.
The concert continued, and Hayden whispered in my ear with excitement, “I talked with Natalie Merchant”. I nodded, smiling, but thought to myself, “Well, sort of…”
Natalie appeared to be in a playful mood and engaged the audience throughout the evening. As she launched into a song from the 10,000 Maniacs days (“Gold Rush Brides”, a song I’d never heard her perform live and was thrilled to hear), she strolled over to where we stood and commented to Hayden, mid-song, “You’re still awake?”
Hayden said, “Of course. I’d stay up all night for this!”
Natalie smiled and replied, “Would you like to come on stage and sing with me?”
Hayden froze, shocked, while strangers all around us urged him on, and began helping him up on stage.
I knew Hayden didn’t know the song that she was in the middle of performing and thus wouldn’t be able to sing it with her, and I wondered what he’d do.
Rather than admit that, he told her “I don’t think I can sing because my voice is shaking so much. I’m so nervous!”
She replied, “Well, then, how about I interview you instead?”
He smiled and nodded. I could barely operate my camera, I was so delighted for him.
She asked him all sorts of questions, from how much TV do you watch a week (“I don’t really count how much”) to what is your favorite vegetable (“um, broccoli”). At one point she asked if he played video games (“I don’t play video games, I’m probably one of seven kids my age who doesn’t”), and then asked if he likes weapons (“I’m a non-violent person” he said, which got cheers from the audience).
She asked him obscure questions for which he somehow came up with answers that even I didn’t know (turns out, she gave him the answers off-mic). At one point she asked him if he was doing okay, and he said “My knees are shaking really bad.” She patted his knees down and saw his checkered Vans-like shoes. She said he dressed in 80’s style, and started asking him if he liked 80’s music, like the Cars and Thompson Twins. He admitted he didn’t know them.
“Do you know Blondie?” she asked, and he replied, “Call Me?” and received more cheers from the crowd.
At the end, she thanked him for coming up and the audience cheered him as he walked back to where I was standing. I looked at him and could tell he was still dazed and in shock at what just happened. He was overjoyed.
During her encore, when the audience was calling out the names of her songs they wanted to hear, she would sing snippets of 70’s tunes instead, and didn’t sing what was requested. She announced they had “one or two more” songs to sing before the end, and the crowd sighed “awwwww” in disappointment. Then she came over near our side of the stage. She glanced at Hayden and said, “It’s late, and it is a school night.”
He called out to her, “I think you left out one essential song.”
She looked surprised, leaned towards him and said, “Which one?”
“Cowboy Romance,” he said.
She turned to the audience. “Hayden wants to hear ‘Cowboy Romance'” she said, and the band launched into the tune. The crowd enthusiastically approved.
At the end of the show, she took her bows to the audience, and then, turned directly to Hayden and bowed to him. He waved back at her, positively beaming.
Walking out of the theater after the show, audience members walked up to Hayden and congratulated him, telling him he did a great job, that he looked good up there. He thanked them politely, basking in the moment of celebrity.
I took the opportunity to tell him how he was just shown something important; that by just being himself — being respectful, honest, and true to who he was — he received such great acknowledgment from Ms. Merchant and the audience. He didn’t try to impress anyone, or try to be funny, or do anything other than just be who he was, and look what great things happened. I hoped he could see the gift in that. And remember it.
On the drive home, he replayed the experience, unable to believe it had happened. He was a big fan of hers, and he got to meet and talk with her. I was happy for him.
But I’d have been able to sing “Gold Rush Brides” with her, though. Just sayin’.