A Tift Merritt show is special anywhere, but it's an especially good time if you can catch her in her hometown of Raleigh.
Early in her two-hour set at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which started in the pouring rain and ended in a thick mist, she said "I'm not going to start talking to y'all like you're neighbors just yet, even though you are," but quickly abandoned that resolution with stories about life on the road ("I've been wearing these socks for six months"), thanks for her dad and local friends in the audience ("There's something great about being able to be yourself in front of a lot of people who know you well"), and the nature of home, which for Merritt these days is New York City, a move she termed "a terrible mistake" as she launched into "Spring" -- about the one tree she can see from her window in the city, she explained.
That and most of the songs in the set were from her latest album, "Traveling Alone," which to my mind is one of her best among a whole lot of good. Longtime bass player ("15, 16 years?" Merritt marveled in her intro) Jay Brown added harmonies in all the right places, even on "Drifted Apart," which features Andrew Bird on the album version. Eric Heywood shone from his corner of the stage on guitar and pedal steel, and Merritt herself reminded everyone that on top of being a top-rate singer, she plays guitar (a longtime friend, too, with visible holes worn in the wood) and brings a heavy dose of soul to the piano, most notably on "Good-Hearted Man" from the 2011 album Tambourine. "Stray Paper" and "Your Love Made a U Turn" from that album also returned to the setlist for this show.
With unfeigned Southern charm, she repeatedly thanked the soggy audience for turning out (and staying out) in the persistent rain, and marveled that she wished she had a jacket that night, an unheard of dip into the 60s in August in North Carolina. She also thanked a TV crew from UNC-TV, which was filming the show for later broadcast. (And she probably vexed them, too, when she strayed from the set list a few times and asked that her makeup be reapplied onstage so she didn't have to leave.)
Fellow North Carolinian Chris Stamey opened the set, accompanied by a small but mighty string section, pianist and flute player, setting the tone for a night of music among neighbors. Late in her set, Merritt said she wished the NCMA concert venue were her front porch, and the music a standing date.
"We'll do it every other Saturday," she said, "and I'll cook."
I have a feeling every person in that crowd was willing to accept that invitation, rain or shine.
Photo by Tony Nelson.