By: GREG HAYMES Staff writer Edition: THREE STAR Section: ENTERTAINMENT Page: C4
Ten years ago, the band played their earliest, edgiest local performances at such now long-defunct bars as 288 Lark and Duck Soup.
After signing a major label deal, they moved up to larger clubs like J.B.'s Theatre, and then hit the theatre circuit with shows at Union College's Memorial Chapel and the Palace as their success continued to grow.
Last year, the band's farewell tour brought them to the Capital Region for one final show, this time at the area's largest venue, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
And on Saturday night, a year after the band called it quits, former Maniacs' vocalist Natalie Merchant returned to the Capital Region once again, quietly slipping into the intimate Bearsville Theatre to present her first-ever official show on her own.
"We've been playing together for about five months now, but this is our first show," Merchant revealed. "We've been doing this in my garage for so long that it feels odd to be in front of people."
Merchant's mesmerizing vocals were as hypnotic as ever, and the longtime fans that pushed the theatre's capacity well beyond the legal limit were obviously thrilled to get a sneak preview of her new band and the new songs that they'll be playing together on what Merchant is calling her Debutante Tour '94.
While fronting the Maniacs, Merchant was often a whirling dervish of perpetual motion, who took to heart the advice of choreographer Ted Shawn to his dancers, "When in doubt, twirl." But backed by her new three-piece band led by guitarist Jennifer Turner Merchant remained glued at her electric keyboard all night long. "It feels so strange to be sitting," she confided.
Merchant led the band through a 65-minute set of 10 new songs, ranging from the opening Wonder (with the sinuous rhythm section delivering a walloping backbeat) to loping country-tinged selections like Tell Me More and In Between to baroque-filagreed folk-pop likeGolden Ticket and My Beloved Wife.
She returned for a solo stab at a bunch of tunes from her Maniac days, nervously admitting, "I'll now attempt to play piano on some songs that I once knew." After ambling through How You've Grown and Verdi Cries, her hushed reading of These Are Days was a revelation, imbuing the buoyant pop hit with a distinct air of nostalgia and a wisp of regret.
The band returned to the stage for two final selections, as Merchant dug into her bag of influences for an unlikely pair of cover songs Joni Mitchell's All I Want and Aretha Franklin's Baby, I Love You. So what was Merchant's assessment of her Maniac-less debut?
"Well, we went downstairs and commiserated about all the mistakes we made," she said with a certain relief, "but I think it went well for our first time."