The weather outside was frightful but in the bijou performance space upstairs at The Lexington things were positively steaming and swamp like – to the extent that Tift Merritt offered to share her backstage beers if the crush (and there was a crush) made it impossible to reach the bar at the back. This is the kind of gig that routinely gets the appellation “intimate” – which means that most of the audience were within mere feet of Tift Merritt who was accompanied only by guitar and pedal steel maestro Eric Heywood. Approaching the microphone – which had been left tilted up by the opening artist – emphasized the diminutive stature of Tift Merritt – something which not even boots with heels of at least a couple of inches were doing much to alleviate. My knowledge of couture is so far lacking that I couldn’t describe what else she wore – a trouser dress ? A sleeveless cat suit ? It must have a name – it’s the kind of thing you might have seen in a seventies’ science fiction film set in the 21st century. So Tift Merritt was spot on trend – it was the plaid clad masses before her that were out of time. But who cares about clothes when you have a songwriter of great craft endowed with an astonishingly large singing voice for one so softly spoken. She seemed genuinely pleased to be in The Lexington, and grateful to be allowed “to travel freely in your country” – one of several such subtle digs at the tiny-handed bully-in-chief.
This was an evening of old favourites and lots of new material – her latest album Stitch of the World has only just hit the shops and we got the title track as the second song in. This blends her distinctive guitar style with some soaring waves of pedal steel to produce as fine an example of Cosmic American Music as you’re likely to hear this, or any other, year. There are layers of meaning in this song, about interconnections and the imperative to be part of the weaving of the tapestry of the world – and one’s own life. And there’s a direction to live unburdened by negative emotions – “You must empty your pocket of stones / That light-hearted you may go, for you must go / Into the stitch of the world”. This was the immediate proof, if needed, that the new album is as good as anything that’s gone before.
Tift Merritt is an engaging performer singing with her guitar, on keyboards she becomes an unstoppable blur of motion. Someone, somewhere, sometime must have suggested that she anchor herself to her stool – their advice went unheeded. Tift Merritt attacks the keyboard – bouncing up, pouncing down. If Tiggers played pianos then they’d play the Tift Merritt way. At times all this energy and attack almost distracts from the words she’s singing – but when the words are as heart-breaking as “I told him that he’d better go / ‘cos I was crazy and impossible / that my love was broken / my dreams had run off wild” and then as joyful as “so I’m trading in that hard headed kid for a woman that I can give to him /…/ you know there just ain’t nothing that feels so fine as loving a good hearted man”. It’s Carol King, it’s Joni Mitchell – it’s definitely Tift Merritt.
A couple of times during the set Tift and Eric cosied up with guitars around a single microphone to produce something like the back home trying songs out experience. These are magical moments. New songs – like the quirky on the album Dusty Old Man took on an engaging immediacy that suddenly made it all make sense. The setting of Raymond Carver’s poem My Boat is a pin drop stillness moment – the boat that the song is superficially about encompassing themes of togetherness, mutual support and acceptance of diversity: “no one will be denied on my boat, on my boat / no getting ahead or falling behind on my boat”. It seems perfectly timed for these days. There’s also a powerful Travelling Alone, which feels like a refugee from Springsteen’s Nebraska “I know that the world is mean, I know it don’t care, I been around, I seen it / It’s like a pretty girl who don’t even know. I guess everybody here is travelling alone”. When Bruce gets to play the Tift Merritt celebration concert that’s his song right there.
The room was small enough that a couple of times Tift was able to indulge herself by singing off-mic’ – on a lovely Something came over me and in the encore on a moving Love soldiers on with its soothing reassurance that love will, eventually, tame hatred and despair. But she’s just as comfortable strapping on an electric guitar to rock out on Proclamation Bones. This was very much a warm up gig amongst close friends and admirers – Tift will be touring in the next few days with the Transatlantic Sessions playing large theatres. Attractive as that sounds – and this writer will be catching at least one performance – with participants such as Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain, John McCusker, and John Paul White amongst others it’s still going to have to go some to improve on what was a night of glorious and heartfelt Americana.