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In all her glory: Tift Merritt.

PHOTO: Martin Benjamin

Gracious Angel

 By Mike Hotter

Tift Merritt

WAMC Performing Arts Studio, March 1

Blossoming music star Tift Mer ritt started her week with a TV appearance in front of 10 million on The Tonight Show, but displayed an endearing lack of pretense or “divadom” during her 90-minute solo performance at the Linda Norris Auditorium in front of a much more intimate crowd last Saturday evening. The Albany stop was the first in a worldwide tour promoting her new album, Another Country, a collection written during a self-imposed songwriting sabbatical in Paris.

While her recorded material carries all the usual trappings of the alt-country world (pedal steel guitars and twanging Telecasters), Merritt singing alone at the Linda’s grand piano for show-opener “Ain’t Looking Closely” brought to mind the classic pop songcraft of Brill Building-era Carole King. As she switched over to a big red Gibson guitar for the chugging and pleasant strummer “Something to Me,” one was immediately struck by the purity of Merritt’s wondrous voice. When she wisecracked to the reverent attendees, “You’re so well behaved,” I thought we would be in for more of the same from her, pleasant but uninvolving. The singer instead delivered a stealthy haymaker, strapping on a harmonica and placing herself and her guitar out of microphone range for a heart-melting “Hopes Too High.” It was clear we had a singing, songwriting angel in our midst, and the audience settled in as if to bask in the radiance cascading from the front of the room.

Merritt was absolutely thrilled to have a dog in attendance (though it was an on-the-clock guide dog), and encouraged some shy concertgoers to sit up front for a better view. But Merritt’s songs weren’t all puppies and valentines. “Laid a Highway” was a lament for the dying hometowns of her native North Carolina, while “My Heart Is Free” took up the perspective of an ancestor who died in the First World War, noting between lines evoking gunshots and the hands of Jesus that it “seems it’s always for a few men that so many of us die.”

Dusty Springfield would have rushed to cover the bluesy growl of “Good Hearted Man,” while Merritt brought “Morning Is My Destination” to a heady outpouring of soul that literally sent a chill down my spine.

Merritt had a hard time leaving the stage—mainly because the audience wouldn’t let her. We Northeasterners have had our butts kicked by another long winter, and Merritt’s prodigious talent served as a most welcome respite from it. Surely she’ll be back. (Right, Howard?)

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