I have never been able to say I have seen the band 10,000 Maniacs live. Well, I couldn’t until last night. Against all emotional odds I saw them perform live for the very first time. My Maniac cherry has been popped. I should explain. My first introduction to the Maniacs was in 1987. My sister sent me a cassette tape called In My Tribe. She said simply, “You’ll like this. You’re a word person. The lyrics are intense.” Intense indeed, only I couldn’t understand a damn word the lead singer sang. I fell in love with the words in the liner notes and over time discarded everything else. The music lay untouched for three years. The cassette long lost and buried under typical college turmoil. Then a high school friend made me one of those ecclectically cherished mixed tapes and she included “Cotton Alley.” My reaction to the song was visceral. Boys teasing a girl. Girl constantly on the run from the rites of male passage yet somehow, defiant in her escape. I identified with every word…that is, every word that I could understand. I went back and bought the cassette just to read the words, to get them right. My sister tried again with In My Tribe, this time sending me the cd. Because I knew the words by heart I reconsidered the sound. “The Painted Desert” became my anthem. Broken promises. Hanging onto a dead dream. I was so there. Over time the passion for the plight of people was intensified. The illiterate, the alcoholic, the war veteran, the homeless, the single mother, the wrongly accused…I devoured every word, every anthem on every album. But I never saw the Maniacs perform live. Never thought to. Not once.
Fast forward nearly a decade. Natalie has long since left the Maniacs. A solo career for her, careening around different projects for the rest of the band. Robert Buck dead. I saw Natalie headline for the first time in Montreal. This is where two musical paths diverged and I took the one most traveled. The one Natalie Merchant was on. I followed her through Ophelia and Motherland and House Carpenter’s Daughter. Through symphonies and solos. As her career path took her further away from the Maniac sound so the Maniacs drifted further away from my ears as well. It got the to point where I didn’t think I could stand to hear anything Maniac related without the muse Merchant behind the microphone. I didn’t want to take that chance. In my mind, without Natalie, 10,000 Maniacs were no better than a manic Maniac cover band. One that I would constantly compare to pre-1993. It’s like how people think of The Dead as a Grateful Dead cover band because Jerry just isn’t there. It was my destiny to commit the same crime with the Maniacs.
Until last night. Monhegan Sun. The Wolf’s Den. Amazing.