Before Matthew Ryan and his band, MRVSS, took the stage at Blueberry Hill, he and his bassist, Brian Bequette, were joking with me and my wife, explaining how the headliner, Tift Merritt, was a “firecracker.” Ryan and his band seemed happy to be on the road with the energetic singer-songwriter, eager to share their music with a respectful room of people.
MRVSS turned out to be firecrackers themselves, burning through a 50-minute set that included songs from their newest album, Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State, and older songs from May Day, East Autumn Grin, Regret Over the Wires, and From a Late Night High Rise. He even included a rare performance of the deeply personal “For Blue Skies,” a song that he released with his former band, Strays Don’t Sleep. A song that I never thought I would hear live.
Ryan was funny, too, as he warned the audience of his faulty harmonica holder, and that if anyone were to see it slip, that he was okay with someone jumping on stage to help him out.
“It’s just good to know you’re out there,” Ryan said, which drew numerous laughs.
Ryan, a wonderful songwriter, was a perfect opener for Merritt, who also drew smiles and applause through her own 90-minute set, filled with songs from her latest album, Another Country.
Opening with “Morning is My Destination,” Merritt immediately showed off her energy and vocals, bouncing up and down beside her keyboard, trying to hit every note imaginable. During “Good Hearted Man,” which she performed solo, the sound-man tried to add reverb into her mix, to which she gently stopped the song and said, “No, no…I’m not a pop artist…if it’s going to be bad, it’s going to be bad.” It was obvious that Merritt was only comfortable doing things her way, which is the only way her songs really take off – with no gimmicks.
The chilling moment of the show came when she unplugged her guitar, stood at the front of the stage with two of her band mates, Scott McCall and Jay Brown, and without any amplification, performed “Supposed to Make You Happy,” a tune off her first album, Bramble Rose. For most of the song, it was amazingly quiet in the room – all you heard was Merritt’s unfiltered voice with beautiful harmony from McCall and Brown. As Merritt swayed and smiled, we adored her successful attempt at a true unplugged and real moment – and she picked the perfect song to pull it off.
As great as that was to see, it really wouldn’t have been fair if Merritt didn’t plug in as well, and we got plenty of that, too. Before the electric “My Heart is Free,” she joked about how when she toured the South, that cousins would appear at shows at an alarming rate, getting a few laughs from her fans. This set up other rocking moments, including an inspired performance of “Broken” that featured McCall in the spotlight with his solos.
Still, in my opinion, it’s Merritt’s words that get you, even as you’re witnessing her songs in a live setting. Whether it was during “Something To Me” (I’ll take a long day/ Come round the right way), “Hopes Too High” (I want to burn like August/ Shine like gold dust), or the main-set closing “Keep You Happy” (Miles are like heart beats/ I know them as they fly away), Tift Merritt always holds you close and never lets you go.