Tift Merritt clearly enjoys performing in Newcastle, and Newcastle indubitably enjoys turning out to see her perform. The last time she was here was as support for Dwight Yoakam; tonight she was centre stage. The Cluny was packed for the occasion and the atmosphere was excitable and intimate; there was a real appreciation of Merritt's talent for live performance, and a wonderfully inclusive feel to the gig, thanks to her easy, natural rapport with her audience.
On stage, Tift was appealingly non-showy – she just did it how she does it, no masquerade, coming across sweet and unpretentious, almost naïve at times – slightly coy and shy, with a face of beatitude and, almost, surprise with each rapturous audience applause. And her beaming smile was certainly infectious.
The audience loved her. And she loved them back. I lost count of the number of times she told us how much she likes Newcastle. Almost as soon as she took to the stage, she declared “Newcastle always seems wild!”, which progressed to “I love you guys...I'm in love with Newcastle”, “You're breaking my heart 'cos I don't want to leave” and “I'll be smiling for weeks” by the end of her show. She expressed all of these sentiments with a genuine, human warmth – which only endeared us even further to her, over and above her magnificent musical performance.
Almost half of the set tonight was completely acoustic, off mike. Tift's voice still managed to fill the whole venue, which was respectfully silent whilst she was playing. She really cared about our experience, a quality sadly lacking in big name acts these days – go to see Bob Dylan or Van Morrison and you will see what I mean. At one point she hopped up onto the monitor to knock out a tune, scaling her way back down after finishing, feeling a little unsafe with the speaker directly overhead. She still asked us, however, when she next went off mike, “Can you hear me better when I'm tall?”.
Merritt's diminutive size, which makes her look a great deal younger than her 33 years, belies a certain confidence and an accomplished knack for writing original and well-rounded songs. The music here is, essentially, country music, however she often moved behind her guitar with a rock chick swagger. In both this and her live sound, she brought to mind Sheryl Crow. This was tempered with a large serving of Carole King (the comparisons particularly true with her song 'Good Hearted Man'). I do not say this lightly – Merritt is a real talent with a whole goodie bag of songs that, given the chance in today's current music industry climate, will endure.
Her face truly expresses the emotion behind every word she sings and, as with her above proclamations, this in no way appears over-acted or superficial. Switching between guitar and keyboard, plugged and unplugged, this was a stunning spectacle from start to finish. She is definitely not one to be missed should you happen upon the opportunity to catch her live – a talent, a total sweetheart, and a sound lass. What more could you ask for?
mp3: Broken - Tift Merritt
mp3: My Heart is Free - Tift Merritt
mp3: Good Hearted Man - Tift Merritt
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Buy Tift's latest album Another Country here.