Natalie Merchant joins NSO for epic concerts at Kennedy Center

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Natalie Merchant at the Kennedy Center (Part 1)

She remains one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the past 40 years.

The prolific Natalie Merchant will be performing a pair of epic concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Opera House in D.C. this Friday and Saturday.

“It’s magnificent,” touring conductor James Bagwell told WTOP. “To hear her and the NSO in the Kennedy Center will just be fantastic. Her arrangements and the way in which she’s orchestrated these songs really just contribute to this massive sound and her voice itself fits so beautifully into the orchestra. It’s really quite something to hear. … This is a one-in-a-million voice and to hear it with an orchestra is just an incredible thing.”

It’s part of Merchant’s “Keep Your Courage” tour, named after her ninth solo album that just dropped in April.

“It’s a real mix of her material from the last 25 years,” Bagwell said. “The audience will really hear the full spectrum of her career, both the stuff that she did with 10,000 Maniacs and also her solo material as well.”

Born in 1963 in Jamestown, New York, Merchant rose to fame as the lead singer of the band 10,000 Maniacs with platinum albums like “In My Tribe” (1987), “Blind Man’s Zoo” (1989) and “Our Time in Eden” (1992), which featured the hit single “These Are the Days.” Their live acoustic album “MTV Unplugged” (1993) was a phenomenon thanks to her cover of the Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith rocker “Because the Night.”

Merchant became a household name when she went solo for the all-timer album “Tigerlily” (1995), which is the ’90s equivalent of Carole King’s “Tapestry” with massive radio hits like “Carnival,” “Jealousy” and “Wonder.”

“[‘Wonder’] is on there in a nice new string arrangement, which is fantastic,” Bagwell said. “A couple of other songs from ‘Tigerlily’ are on there. One is ‘Beloved Wife,’ which was written about [her] grandfather’s response to his wife who just died. She revealed that to me as I was finishing conducting it on the podium at the first concert. … Also, ‘River,’ a song about River Phoenix, is on the set list as well, and ‘The Letter,’ which uses the string section.”

Her second solo album, “Ophelia” (1998), delivered more hits from “Break Your Heart” to “Kind & Generous.”

“We’re doing the title cut from that album with the orchestra,” Bagwell said. “We’re doing ‘Life is Sweet,’ we’re doing ‘Kind & Generous,’ ‘Frozen Charlotte,’ all the ‘biggies’ off of that album. [‘Kind & Generous’] starts off with just her and the band and we just keep adding orchestral instruments, so it just keeps building and building … to where it’s almost unbearably great, where you just can’t believe how great this is.”

In the end, there’s a plethora of songs to choose from after solo albums like “Motherland” (2001), “The House Carpenter’s Daughter” (2003), “Leave Your Sleep” (2010), “Natalie Merchant” (2014), “Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings” (2015), “Butterfly” (2017) and now “Keep Your Courage” (2023).

“It’s a real great catalog,” Bagwell said. “I listened to 10,000 Maniacs when I was a senior in college and that’s exactly who that music was meant for. Then, when I went to graduate school it was ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Tigerlily,’ so it’s just sort of followed me around during my musical life. Our first concert together was in 2011. I teach at Bard College in New York and she came and we did a concert together with the orchestra and it was just so simpatico.”

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WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Natalie Merchant at the Kennedy Center (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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