Photo Credit: Jason Frank Rothenberg
Maybe it’s the fact that she lives a mere two blocks away from New York’s City Winery, making her New Year’s Day show something of a second home-coming (she’s originally from North Carolina), but there was a palpable warmth and comfort which Tift Merritt brought to her show, co-billed with Joseph Arthur. She admitted halfway through her set, in an almost confessional tone, that she would amble down to the venue each morning to play their piano. It was as if she was letting the audience in on a few of her songwriting secrets, and was both nervous and giddy about the unfolding. Even so, the poise and grace with which she performed her 70-minute solo set reminded the crowd once again how much of a force Merritt is in the live setting.
Her show to usher in 2012 also doubled as a presentation of a slew of new material, road-testing the work before entering into the studio later in January. Merritt has already debuted some of these songs live over the course of 2011, but many came recently and made their official first appearance at City Winery. Among them were “Sweet Spot,” recently used in acoustic form on the CW’s “Hart of Dixie” television show, and “Traveling Alone,” which Merritt shared in demo form at the end of last year.
Oftentimes a show filled mostly with new work can be a drag, despite the novelty of hearing fresh ideas poured out onstage. While Tift acknowledged this fact and apologized in a delightfully self-deprecating way, there really was no need. There may have been ten new songs (out of fourteen played), but they were performed with such intensity, thoughtfulness and passion that the audience remained rapt throughout. The ambiance of the venue added to the intimacy, with candles lit all over the room casting a soft lighting, but it was Merritt sitting alone on stage, guitar (or piano) in hand that commanded the space and for just slightly over an hour turned it into somewhat of a living room with an old friend playing some new songs over a nice bottle of red wine.
If you go back through Merritt’s catalogue, each record can be characterized by an overarching theme– Another Country about reconnecting to one’s artistry, See You On The Moon about the intricate difficulties of relationships, for example– and when the new material started to coalesce, the role of one’s emotional and spiritual travels emerged as a central focus. Early in the set, she introduced “Sweet Spot” by teasing, “I’m turning thirty seven, which means I’m at the beautiful age where I don’t give a damn what you think (laughs),” and while she was joking with the audience regarding the amount of new material being played, there is a level to which Merritt’s aging and deepening of her career shines forth in the work. Songs like “Traveling Alone,” “Still Not Home” and “To Myself” deal with the process of searching for meaning inside and outside of yourself on one’s personal journey. There’s a gravity to these songs that demonstrate Merritt’s slight unease about growing older, but that’s offset by an earnestness and sincerity that recognizes the presence of melancholy without allowing a full surrender to its weight.
Tift offered four selections from her older albums: “Feel of the World,” “Another Country,” “Good Hearted Man” and “Stray Paper.” Each was welcomed with enthusiastic applause, but it was the latter that drew the most excitement. And while Merritt often chooses these songs in her solo sets, their spirit and vibrancy fit beautifully with the new material. “Traveling Alone” and “Still Not Home” share the Bob Dylan/Patty Griffin-esque energetic strum, “Spring” has a deliciously dark sheen that recalls “Feel of the World,” “Too Soon To Go” and “Sweet Spot” have a wonderful symmetry to songs from Another Country, and “Worn Out World” evokes an Emmylou Harris fragility and warm Southern aesthetic. This isn’t to say the new work are copies of previously written pieces; rather, the connection shows Merritt’s cohesive trajectory, but there are many instances where she’s pushing the boundaries of her own writing style. With Tucker Martine at the production helm for the upcoming recording sessions, it’ll be fascinating to hear how these songs evolve and grow.
Although many may have wanted Tift to continue playing through the night, digging into more See You On The Moon and Bramble Rose, the chance to hear these ten new songs in their relative infancy was an incredibly special treat. Sadly, though, the evening was over seemingly almost as soon as it began. Entranced by Merritt’s powerful voice, story-telling and ardent playing, the audience at City Winery drank in the seventy minutes Tift spent on stage, and by the end were buoyed by the chance to witness an artist in motion– continuing on her journey and leaving all of us a travelogue to follow.
Traveling Alone [new song]
Still Not Home [new song]
Sweet Spot [new song]
Small Talk Relations [new song]
Feel of the World
To Myself [new song]
Drifted Apart [new song]
Good Hearted Man
Feeling of Beauty [new song]
Spring [new song]
Too Soon To Go [new song]
Worn Out World [new song]