Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Natalie Merchant: Live Concert + Documentary Film (1999)
Studio Line: Warner Music

When Natalie Merchant played a four-night run at Broadway's Neil Simon Theater, it was one of the concert events of the year, drawing national acclaim for her intimate, impassioned performance. This DVD is the companion piece to--and substantially different from--her live album of the same name.

1. Life is Sweet 2. Ophelia 3. Wonder 4. San Andreas Fault 5. Beloved Wife 6. Senor Don Gato 7. Space Oddity 8. Carnival 9. Break Your Heart 10. These Are Days 11. The Gulf of Araby 12. Waterbound

Producer: Tom Case
Cast: Natalie Merchant
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles none; single sided - single layered; 12 chapters; Not Rated; 64 min.; $24.99; street date 11/9/99.
Supplements: Backstage Footage.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/A-/F

In the interest of fairness, I won't provide any comments that relate to my opinions of the music featured on Natalie Merchant Live In Concert. Why? Because I frankly can't stand her; I only borrowed this DVD from a friend out of curiosity. I thought I’d check out the picture and sound quality and write up a review of it. It just doesn't seem right for me to go out of my way to view this DVD and then rip apart the content. (Yeah, that never stopped me before, but it's a new year - I'm trying to get off on the right foot!)

So I'll leave Natalie alone, but I will comment on the quality of the production itself; despite my lack of affection for the featured artist, I should be able to examine the effectiveness of the presentation without any snotty remarks. (Well, I'll try, at least.)

The Merchant program effectively transmits the live experience with little gimmickry. I've seen many concert videos in my day, and far too many of them attempt to spice up the action with silly production decisions: lots of rapid cuts, strange visual effects, etc. These rarely work and usually harm the presentation to a great degree because they completely eliminate any vestiges of the original show.

When I watch a concert video, I want to see something that depicts as accurately as possible the actual performance. No live show can ever be truly replicated at home; if multiple angles become more prevalent, we'll get closer to that, but it'll never really happen. Nonetheless, some offerings do a better job than others, and NM works pretty well in that regard.

Merchant's a fairly subdued performer, and this is a pretty subdued video. That's a good thing, because it lets the viewer focus on the important aspects of the show without becoming distracted. Visual gimmicks are happily nonexistent; slow motion is utilized on occasion, and that's about it. If you want a nice representation of a Natalie Merchant show, this DVD will give it to you.

The DVD:

Unfortunately, if you want to see Natalie Merchant in focus, you'll have to attend one of her concerts, because while the presentation of this show is positive, the appearance of the video is not. NM appears in its filmed aspect ratio of about 1.66:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions.

Rating the image quality of music videos can often be awfully difficult because many of them intentionally look bad; the producers made a production decision to go for a certain "look" that they valued over image clarity. Sometimes I can tell that a DVD has gone badly awry for reasons other than artistic because I have material that shows this; for example, I was able to compare the Janet Jackson Velvet Rope DVD to the HBO broadcast I taped and note that the VHS actually looked sharper than the DVD!

While I can't make such A-B comparisons with NM, I can state that it looks surprisingly bad for a brand-new presentation. Sharpness is usually quite dull and soft; the picture doesn't look blurry, per se, but it seems very flat and lifeless. Despite that, moiré effects occasionally crop into the image; microphones shimmer and various objects like cymbals display jagged edges.

The picture looks quite grainy much of the time. This seems excusable at the beginning and end of the program - the concert is bookended by black and white shots of Merchant fans outside the venue - but makes no creative sense for the show itself. The grittiness becomes especially noticeable and distracting during the slow motions scenes, where it really stands out strongly.

Colors consistently seem very flat and desaturated. Most of the show doesn't offer much color, really, but even objects like Merchant's orange shirt appear pale and dull. Black levels are probably the most successful aspect of the image, but even they look milky and gray much of the time. Shadow detail is adequate but also vague.

How much of this poor quality was a production choice? I'd estimate that some of it resulted from creative decisions; they might have felt that the desaturation and fuzziness gave the program a more "dreamlike" quality. But since some shots - not many, but some - actually look pretty sharp and clear, that greatly causes me to question the notion that this weak video quality was intentional. Whatever the case, it looks pretty bad.

That’s not the case for the quite strong Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. (NM also offers - and defaults to, in fact - a Dolby Surround 2.0 track, but stay away from it, even if you don't have a Dolby Digital receiver; it's extremely flat and lifeless.) The music sounds very good on this DVD and presents a nicely broad stereo soundstage for the front channels. Instruments are spread evenly across the forward area and all appear well-defined. The audio quality seems very clean, clear, natural and warm; I could have used a little more low end, but the sound nonetheless appears very accurate and well-reproduced.

The surround channels are reserved for some very gentle reverberation effects - mainly of the drums - and applause between songs. While I honestly prefer ambitious music mixes with 5.1, I understand that many folks like to have this kind of semi-recreation of the concert hall experience, so I won't fault the DVD for failing to go nuts. All in all, I found the Natalie Merchant Live audio to be terrific.

NM completely lacks supplements. It doesn't even provide subtitles for songs, which is something I think should be an absolute given. The DVD comes in an unusual package. It's cardboard but not a "snapper;" there's no way to keep the case closed. It opens like a "snapper" but also includes a center page. I've never seen a package like it. (When I mentioned this to the friend from whom I borrowed the DVD, he stated that it was "environmentally-friendly." He was joking, but I would have believed him; that seems like the kind of thing Merchant would do.) The interior of the case features a few pictures, credits and a song listing.

Here's the bottom line on this DVD: Natalie Merchant Live offers some good sound but a pretty bad visual experience and absolutely no supplements. A live compact disc from this concert arrived concurrently with the video, and I'd certainly like to steer Merchant fans toward that; it's cheaper and would reproduce the sound nearly as well, I'd guess. Unfortunately, Merchant's merchandisers make this unpalatable for her big fans; the DVD and the CD do not share the same track listings. The DVD provides five exclusive songs, whereas the CD features four tracks not found on the video. As such, Merchant fans may want this one just for the different songs, but it's not a very watchable program.

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