On the Road to Jericho; Tift Merritt at St. Barnabas Church, Jericho, Oxford, UK
In an era of huge venues with PA systems to match it is hard for artists and their audience to connect with each other. The complete opposite characterized Tift Merritt’s performance at St. Barnabas Church in the Jericho district of Oxford. Obviously designed with connection in mind, this is a magnificent setting with vaulted ceilings, some ornate, almost Byzantine, decoration and perfect acoustics. There was no stage, just a grand piano, mics and three guitars in a modest space between the audience and the chancel. If you had to pick a voice to perform here, who better than Tift Merritt’s?
To warm applause Merritt flitted in front of her audience, going straight to the piano, where she opened with “Another Country.” In a single song, Merritt established a connection that deepened throughout the evening. Remaining at the keys, her next song, “Icarus,” quite literally soared up to the heights of this magnificent building. Picking up her guitar, next came the title track of her highly acclaimed release earlier this year, “Stitch of the World.” As Merritt noted, this was a place to make peace with the world, a theme of this fine song.
The set featured much of that latest release; an album that was some time in the making, on which Merritt dug deep into turmoil, both hers and further afield. “My Boat” is one example of the latter. Inspired by the poetry of Raymond Carver, “no one will be denied on my boat,” Merritt contrasted her views with those in the White House, announcing that she is thinking of defecting on this tour, although perhaps waiting until she reaches continental Europe. Such chat between songs bound artist and audience even closer together.
Merritt gathered two members of the show’s opening act, The Epstein, around the mic for “Something Came Over Me,” a beautifully sensitive piece for two voices, guitar, and fiddle, that she described as a “kumbaya” moment. Merritt tightened the connection when she took a few paces into the audience to perform “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight” off mic. At risk of overdoing the clerical analogies, I can’t have been the only one there to think she sings with the voice of an angel.
In another aside between songs toward the set’s end, Merritt spoke about the touring life. It is an exhausting business at the best of times but more so now that she’s accompanied by her young daughter. The pursuit of a good gig keeps the show on the road and all here agreed enthusiastically when she declared this a “good gig.” Just a bit, Tift. Tuning her electric Gibson was the only moment when she might have questioned that, but once ready it was put to very good use on “Got To Do It Right.”
“Proclamation Bones” brought the set to a close. “Every road gonna disappear, the fate of man is still unclear, I think you should stay right, tonight, tonight, tonight.” That pretty much summed up this quite excellent performance. That and four encores, finishing with the poignant yet defiant “Love Soldiers On,” sung again without amplification, concluded the evening with artist and audience in perfect communion.