On Saturday, October 25th, Natalie Merchant sold out all 425 seats of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. The show marked my 5th of the year, having attended one in April, one in July and two this past September. Despite what at first glance may appear to be “preoccupation,” my enthusiasm for Natalie is three fold:
1. My first-ever Natalie Merchant show was in 2004. It was also my last for six years due to a hiatus after having her first baby. When she started touring again in 2010, I couldn't help but make up for lost time. Now, aside from being a hometown show, Westhampton was also special because my parents were in attendance. My mother has been a fan since the 80s and is actually the person who introduced me to 10,000 Maniacs. I can remember as child, driving to the beach in her station wagon, singing the wrong lyrics to Stockton Gala Days, or stealing up to my bedroom having jacked her MTV Unplugged cassette and then lying when asked where it was. More than 20 years later, we were in the theater we previously passed hundreds of times before on the way to the beach, These are Days blasting out open windows.
2. The experience of a live show for me is what I imagine a religious service is like for people of faith: gathering, reflection, stories, voices raised in unison. The truth is, listening to Natalie Merchant—whether live or not—is the closest I've ever felt to God. I have a somatic reaction to her voice—it’s almost like her sound is a catalyst that bridges the physical to the spiritual. As a result, I feel connected—to others and by default, to my own humanity.
3. Artists play differently in different venues. Such was the case with these shows; different bandmates, different set lists, different audiences all make for unique experiences.
As an avid concert goer, I think a lot about an audience's place in a show—as a fan of Natalie's, I know she's not keen on requests. Personally, I'm hard-pressed to make a peep during any show, content to let the artist take the wheel. Even when prompted to contribute—like when she forgot the lyrics to Texas at the State Theater and asked the audience to help her out—I couldn't find courage to shout out the words I knew better than my own name. So, this presented a bit of a conundrum at WHB because I knew the following day was her birthday—and very simply, I wanted to wish her a happy one.
With pins and needles in places I never thought possible, during the first set I squeaked out, "Happy birthday!" The audience ooohed and when Natalie rolled her eyes, everyone laughed. "Okay," she said to her guitarist, Gabe. "We have to do it now and you (the audience) have to sing along..." As it turns out, she decided before the show that if anyone wished her a happy birthday, they’d play CCR's Have You Ever Seen the Rain. It was a wonderful and spirited departure from a more subdued set and got everyone clapping and singing along. Had the excitement ended there, I would have gone home more than pleased; however, I had no idea the best was yet to come.
Natalie came back for her encore with White Room in honor of Jack Bruce who passed away earlier that day, which, ironically, is one of my dad's favorites. Just as I looked over to him with a smile, Natalie stopped singing. "This song is way too low for me—how about you sing it." She stepped off the stage opposite where we were and walked up the aisle, trying to pass the microphone off to someone who would sing. No one took it. She ran back on stage, grabbed a lyric sheet and said, "If I give you the lyrics, would that help?" Venturing down our aisle, she handed a woman in the third row the mic. As the woman sang, Natalie took an empty seat in the audience and clapped along. Everyone cheered, and Natalie then confiscated the mic and lyrics—and instead of going back on stage, she turned and like a Tupperware lid clicking to its base, she locked eyes with me. She walked up the aisle directly toward me and neither of us looked away—and in those moments, moments which felt like a blissful eternity, 10,000 thoughts went through my head before she stopped and leaned down right in front of me.
Now, if I haven't already established that Natalie Merchant is the premiere artist of my life, the matriarch in a trifecta of female artists who've influenced my being to the point that I truly wouldn't know who I'd be if not for their work, let me state now, she is that person to me. Everyone has a person like this; the person they've daydreamed about meeting, tried to conjure what would be said to encapsulate the enormity of what they mean to them if they got the chance to meet—and of course, what that person might say in return. Very few get the opportunity to confront such a situation yet, here I was literally, unexpectedly so close we were breathing each other's air.
In my own daydreams—which mostly occurred on long road trips or in waiting rooms—I usually pictured a situation where we were in a bookstore. I would see her there and say nothing because I'm shy, but maybe she'd come over and ask if I liked what I was reading. I would say something perfect and a natural ease would emerge. She'd say, "I'm Natalie," and I'd smile and say, "I know." We'd chuckle. She'd invite me to a Ramble. I'd go and she, Gabe and I would sing Weeping Willow to a barn filled with people dressed in knit hats, worn flannel and denim.
This was my Natalie Merchant meet-and-greet fantasy. What actually happened that night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center was beyond my wildest of daydreams.
Leaning into my very personal space, Natalie Merchant—in the most knowing voice—puts her mouth to the microphone and for the entire venue to hear says...
"I know you."
As far as I could tell, the place went silent—it fact, it disappeared completely into a blackness that surrounded only Natalie and I—and there we were; two people who knew each other.
She nodded confidently, "I know you," she repeated and handed me the mic.
In a series of seconds, no more than three, I went through every explanation logical and otherwise I could think of. The first thought was the least logical but perhaps the most fun which was that, of course you know me; we're spiritually connected!
No, don't be crazy.
Could she have recognized me from the audience? I'd been to a few shows, but never front row...
No, that couldn’t be it.
Then I remembered; the book. Yes, it's the book!
In 2010, I sent her a first edition of Davy and the Goblin. She joked about wanting it as a gift at two of the shows I attended that year. So for her birthday, I tracked down a copy and sent it with no expectations, only the hope that she'd get it and love it; and in return, she sent me a handwritten thank you note—a cherished possession I sleep with under my pillow... just kidding.
Could that be it? I leaned in closer and in a world that existed completely for the two of us asked, "How do you know me?"
She smiled and with a finger extended towards me said, "The interview..."
My stomach flipped. Everyone appeared again and Natalie disappeared into the downbeat of Cream that played amidst our tete-a-tete.
It truly never occurred to me that she'd even see it—the interview I participated in at the State Theater for a documentary film to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of her first solo album, Tigerlily! My girlfriend and I drove up early to avoid NYC traffic and over the course of four hours hours, drank the entirety of New Brunswick, NJ waiting for the show. When we walked into the theater at 7pm, a man asked if we'd like to participate in the project. "Just point me to them!" I exclaimed, all but running up the stairs for my debut. "I hear you want to talk about Tigerlily," I said to the producer shooting the film—a beautiful woman whose name I have no chance of remembering. "Well, get ready cause I'm your girl."
Now, I understand the contradiction between this story and the ones I told earlier, about being kinda shy. But the truth is I remember very little about that interview except that about an hour after it, a feeling of dread rolled in like a storm and I thought, maybe I've made better decisions...
But there I was nonetheless. I looked up and everyone's eyes (425 pairs plus Natalie's) were on me. I waited for the lead in and with a big breath belted it out…
"In the white room, with black curtains, at the station!"
Everyone. Went. Crazy.
I looked at Natalie and she started singing with me.
"Black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings" we exclaimed in unison!
I heard my friends from across the theater scream, "Go, Becca!" as Natalie started—literally—to head bang in front of me, her hair whipping about like quicksilver in a blender.
I sang the entire first verse before she grabbed the mic and disappeared into the rest of her concert leaving me to reconcile the consequences of my actions.
It’s been a few weeks now since the show and in that time I've come to some conclusions I’d like to share.
It seems to me that there’s fine line between writing your destiny and living in a daydream. You can spend a lifetime escaped in thought or pacified by possibility. But, you can also use your thoughts to manifest the power of intention, positioning yourself on a path that—while you may not know where it will inevitably lead—will start you on a course imbued with consciousness… and what I know for sure is the universe responds to that.
Now, I'm not saying I deliberately willed Natalie Merchant to me that night, but I have to believe that it was more than coincidence that the first words ever spoken to me by a woman I've idolized my whole life were, "I know you." That, should I in-fact run into her at a bookstore, I would not only know her, but she would also know me. The lesson then is that anything is indeed possible and when you seize the moment—whether it's being unselfconscious about getting on camera, or singing about expansive psychedelia in front of hundreds of people—that you are rewarded in ways more satisfying than any daydream could provide.