Tift Merritt has one of the most beautiful voices you’ll hear in today’s alt-country and Americana — or whatever you want to call the music she’s released on four albums since 2002, including the new record See You on the Moon. Merritt sounds a little more mainstream and traditional than some of her counterparts, such as Neko Case, but she’s still far, far better than the stuff that gets played on mainstream country radio. (And how many mainstream Nashville artists drop a reference to Mazzy Star in their lyrics or do a song in French?)
Merritt touched on all the aspects of her music during her set Friday night (July 30) at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, from soulful piano ballads and simple acoustic folk songs to louder, more driving Southern rock. The pedal-steel guitar of Eric Heywood (who’s played with Son Volt and other bands) added another lovely voice to the mix, dueting with Merritt’s dulcet vocals on songs such as the title track from 2002’s Bramble Rose. Her band also included longtime players Jay Brown on bass and Zeke Hutchins (her husband) on drums. During the encore, Hutchins stepped up to the mike for lead vocals on an a cappella song about Evel Knievel.
Highlights included the rocker “Engine to Turn” from the new album and a solo piano rendition of “Good Hearted Man,” from her 2004 album Tambourine. (Alas, we did not get to hear the title track, “Tambourine.”) Merritt played both of the cover tunes on her new record: “Live Till You Die” by Emitt Rhodes and “Danny’s Song” by Kenny Loggins. The latter is a song that I did not especially want to hear anyone cover, but Merritt manages to bring out its best qualities.
It’s too bad Lincoln Hall wasn’t more crowded for this fine show — the house seemed to be about half-full. Opening act Dawn Landes was pretty charming and tuneful in her own right, playing roots rock in a similar vein.