CLEARWATER — Hell hath no fury like Natalie Merchant in need of Tums.
Thirty minutes into her long, lovely if especially prickly show at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Tuesday, the singer dedicated the spicy lil' number The Peppery Man to the Columbia Restaurant, which "gave me the worst case of food poisoning of my life. … That's not Spanish food. The house salad looked like something in my compost bucket."
Wow, way to ingratiate yourself with the Tampa Bay peeps, Nat! Next time, why don't you just wear a Red Sox jersey or shout, "No one rocks like Orlando!"
Ah yes, for 21/2 hours, in front of 1,708 loyalists, Merchant — never one to suffer fools or, apparently, a concert-postponing bellyache — displayed all the glaring reasons why we've loved, loathed and/or feared her in a sexy-scary-schoolmarm way.
Touring behind new album Leave Your Sleep, a 26-track anthology of 19th and 20th century poetry set to myriad genres (not as boring as it sounds), Merchant mixed a slide-projector tutorial in the masters of verse (okay, that got a little dull) with oft-unsettling dance moves, her vaguely affected snobbery and, of course, that supernaturally beautiful voice.
Merchant is 46 now, decades removed from her youthful twirl as the head of 10,000 Maniacs. But her voice, a stunning gift that pours like some precious liquid metal, can still swell to magnificent, otherworldly moments. In other words, it's easy to overlook her more cloying Natalieness.
The first several numbers suffered from a Victorian ornateness, a famous Merchant crutch for sure. But once she got to Nathalia Crane's swinging The Janitor's Boy and the Crescent City fun of Jack Prelutsky's Bleezer's Ice-Cream, you remembered how sexy she can be, especially backed by a versatile eight-piece band at ease with Balkan folk, Appalachian stomp and Cajun dance.
The crowd was patient and appreciative of the poem treatments, but they roared for a second set of hits. Merchant hasn't toured in seven years, and she's threatening to go just as long before she returns. So she kindly dusted off the goodies, including Wonder, Carnival and the sublime Maniacs gem Hey Jack Kerouac, all of which were performed acoustically but with great, grooving smolder, Merchant letting her pipes soar to eargasm highs.
"A pseudo-Spanish restaurant attempted to sabotage tonight's performance," Merchant said, sticking it to our revered foodie Valhalla, over and over. But her discomfort also seemed to bring her — and us — a strange joy.
Yep, the love-hate relationship lives on. Come back soon, Natalie. I know a great place for paella.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.