Tift Merritt at The Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis, MN 10/6/12


In the summer of 2010, Tift Merritt made a stop at the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, in support of her “See You On The Moon” release. A few songs into her set, stellar sideman Eric Heywood’s amp cut out on him, while switching guitars. While Eric and the stage crew worried over the equipment, Tift grabbed her big Guild dreadnought and motioned to bassist/harmony vocalist Jay Brown to join her as she stepped off the stage and into the Fine Line crowd. A murmur went through the audience: “What is she doing? Is she losing it?”
But, no. Grasping Jay’s hand for balance, she stepped up onto a centrally-located table, while the patrons cleared off their drinks, steadied herself, and began playing and singing “Keep You Happy,” a tender love song from the new album. (The photo above recreates the scene somewhat, albeit at a different time and place.) Instantly, the crowd quieted down and listened in awed, respectful silence. Those seated in the balcony leaned over the rail to get a closer look at the amazing, unscripted spectacle. Even the barflies stopped their nattering about the goddamn Twins long enough to soak in the simple, beautiful sound of those two voices and that one guitar, unmiked and unamped, pure and unadorned. The standing ovation when they finished and returned to the stage was more heartfelt and spontaneous than the obligatory ones at the end of a set. Watching this special, unrehearsed moment unfold, from my perch against the wall, I told my companion, “THIS is why I go out to see live music!”
The downside of such a fleeting event is that it can never be recreated again. To be sure, one hopes and expects that equipment will function properly, players will hit all the right notes, singers will be in good voice and remember all the lyrics, and the whole show will pull off without a hitch. Still, it’s the artist’s ability to read the room, react to the crowd, adapt to the unexpected, and improvise on the fly that – for me – makes for a truly memorable concert experience.
On this particular night, there was very little adapting or improvising on the part of Tift Merritt. Thankfully, there were no technical difficulties to overcome – indeed, the sound was lush and crystal clear. Yet, one couldn’t help but hope for that one special moment, where the setlist was cast aside and on-the-spot inspiration took over, if only for a brief time.
But, this is a minor quibble for an evening of good music, well played. The Cedar show was just the 2nd stop for Tift on her current tour. As such, the between-song transitions weren’t as smooth as they will be 10 dates hence, and Tift’s stage patter was awkward and stilted, initially. In fact, it wasn’t until after the second song, (“All The Reasons We Don’t Have To Fight,” from the “See You On The Moon” album) that she spoke her first words to the audience – and then, only, “I’m not ready to talk to you yet.” In fact, two songs later, she repeated the same sentiment. The Cedar crowd, always respectful and indulgent, did not seem to mind, and Tift gradually warmed up, after a few selections from the new CD, “Traveling Alone.” She became more emotionally involved in the material, less distant, and more engaged with the crowd. At one point, as Tift switched from guitar to piano for “Small Town Relations,” a woman from the audience called out “Your hair is pretty!” Amid the laughter from the crowd, Tift turned to the woman, beaming, and replied, “I have been in a car with three men all day and that just made my night!”
This brief exchange seemed to break the ice, and Tift became more talkative, noting that this was the 10-year anniversary of the release of her first album, a milestone she called “disturbing, yet comforting,” before launching into the title track of “Bramble Rose.”
Throughout the evening, her 3 bearded sidemen provided masterful support. Minneapolis native Eric Heywood was nothing short of brilliant, switching effortlessly from pedal steel, to lap steel, electric and acoustic guitar, with spot-on leads and fills on every song. Long time band mate Jay Brown (“My best friend!” Tift announced), not only provided nuanced bass work but sang beautiful harmonies. Newcomer Tony Leoni mixed brushes and mallets with his stickwork on the drum kit, tastefully and appropriately.
By the end of the evening, the early distancing of the artist from the audience had completely vanished. Before the final song of her 3-song encore, Tift announced that she was going to come out afterward and “have a beer with y’all!” Regrettably, my buddy was driving and didn’t care to stay. Too bad for us; for all I know, she may have climbed back up on a table with that big old Guild dreadnought and belted out a reprise of “Keep You Happy.”

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