Tift Merritt’s lovely voice sounds sometimes like it’s about to break — there’s that slight crack, the one you hear in the vocals of old-time country singers, that little creak that makes the singer seem both brave and vulnerable. And she sounded just as beautiful as ever on Friday night (Oct. 5) at City Winery in Chicago. Merritt played quite a few songs from her fifth and latest record, Traveling Alone, which was a fine thing, since it’s another strong collection of songs rooted in traditional country, rock and folk.
Andrew Bird and Marc Ribot, who perform on the new record, weren’t present, but Merritt had her longtime bassist and collaborator Jay Brown onstage, along with pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood and drummer Tony Leone, and they provided subtle accompaniment for her delicate singing and acoustic guitar strumming. The highlights included some of her best-known older songs, “Stray Paper,” “Bramble Rose” and “Good Hearted Man,” which sounded like a true classic as she sat down at the grand piano to sing that indelible melody.
This was the first concert I’ve seen at City Winery, and it also featured a nice opening set of mellow, husky-voiced Americana by the Pines. The room sounded great during both sets, and it seems like an all right place to see a singer-songwriter. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the business is mostly interested in getting you to order wine and food as you sit at your assigned table. Personally, I’d rather see a show in a venue where I can move around and mingle.
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.