Throughout her relatively short career, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has been something of a musical chameleon. Her sparkling 2002 debut, ‘Bramble Rose,’ was infused with bristling alt-country twang. With her 2004 sophomore album, ‘Tambourine,’ she took on the mantle of a Southern soul singer.
On February 28, she released her third album, ‘Another Country,’ in which she polishes up a more sophisticated pop sound. And on Saturday night, (03.29.08) the North Carolina native stopped at Pittsburgh’s Club Cafe as part of her new tour, proving that she’s quite capable of effortlessly fusing together those various stylistic ventures into one successful and very charming performance.
At the heart of it is her gorgeous voice, a honeyed instrument that deftly balances pain and joy with an all-too-rare open-hearted, unguarded quality that invites listeners in as though they are old friends.
p>Alone onstage on Saturday, she grabbed the near-capacity crowd early on, stepping away from the microphones to sing “Hopes Too High” without benefit of the sound system. Merritt did the same thing twice more during her 90-minute show, and it could have seemed as though she was merely milking a good gimmick, but instead, it instilled an uncommon sense of intimacy to a show brimming over with fragile, intimate songs.
Although few in the crowd were probably familiar with her brand new album, Merritt sang all of the 11 new songs, shifting from the grand piano (“Tender Branch” and the title track) to her guitar (“Something to Me” and the hard-strumming “My Heart’s Free”). She also strapped on a harmonica with excellent results on the determined “I Know What I’m Looking for Now,” among others. She visited her earlier material, too, letting a little bit of Janis Joplin slip into her voice for the rousing “Good-Hearted Man” and offering some of her most poignant vocals of the night on the heartbreaking “Laid a Highway.” She even nailed the twang-tinged “Trouble Over Me” for her first encore, although it took her three passes through the second verse to get it right. But even with the mental lapse of forgetting the lyrics, Merritt seemed to endear herself more to the crowd.
Some may have been disappointed that Merritt has stepped out beyond the alt-country confines. Some, too, may have been disappointed that she didn’t bring along her band for the show. But for those who accepted her and her music on her own terms, Merritt turned in a simply terrific performance. She not only made a lot of new fans, but she also probably made quite a few new friends, too.