From the moment she started singing at the Bowl Saturday night, you knew Natalie Merchant still had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, female voices in rock (not that she admits to being a rock singer). With the power of a foghorn, the timbre of an oboe, her voice is a musical instrument; and the inclusion of a string quartet in the second half of her program reflected her own recognition of that comparison. (Her scheduled appearance with actual symphony orchestras on a 2011 tour, including a performance I was scheduled to see in Minneapolis until a lockout canceled the Minnesota Orchestra season, was even greater evidence.)

Unfortunately, her personal appearance and performance, like that of an orchestra cellist, didn’t add much to the sound. No longer young or sexy or waiflike, she dressed like a librarian and her moves, mostly twirling around, made me think she thought she was Stevie Nicks, but she wasn’t.

Her song selection was mostly pleasant, only occasionally stirring, and could have used more 10,000 Maniacs material, which is what the crowd was anticipating. On too many songs there were long bridges between vocals, which left us to watch her wandering around, instrument-less, onstage. In addition, she had a self-described “summer cold,” and the sight of her snorting nasal spray between songs was a bit of buzzkill. Spontaneous joy was in short supply, provided mainly by her guitarist, Gabriel.

In sum, the show was a good listen, but I never found myself caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm.

[Santa Barbara Bowl, July 15, 2017]