On this last day in January, with the rain pouring down in the cloying cold outside, upstairs at the Lexington is snug. There’s a dampness in the air as we all warm the wet off each other. The chill that settled into our skin and bones gradually dries away, eased out as Tift Merritt and Eric Heywood (guitar and pedal steel) softly introduce us to her latest album ‘Stitch Of The World’.
It’s just them for the duration, the couple unsurprisingly comfortable moving and working around ech other – no need for much to be said between them as they change stagings and instrumentation. Tift’s sliced up her finger, the mircophone is initially sized for Andre the Giant, but these hiccoughs are more food for quips than problems. The set is beautifully delivered.
They kick the show off with ‘Wait For Me’, brought forward from the very end of the new LP. It’s a gentle exhortation that “you gotta do right your baby, you gotta do right by your dreams”, but reinforced by shimmering sweeps and swoops of steel from Heywood.
Elsewhere ‘Dusty Old Man’ is a revelation tonight; without the extra instrumentation, without the layers, I finally get it. Stripped back I can hear it, I can hear her, I can feel the wry joy in a new, experienced, defiant, freeing romance. There are lyrical touches that make me smile: “all you can do sometimes is say goddamn, and give your love to a dusty old man” and “he love my mouth and he love my hips.”
We get a reminder of just how arresting Merritt’s voice can be in ‘Heartache Is An Uphill Climb’. Listening to her on record I don’t think it’s always apparent just how much power there is there; strength and passion, yes, but here we also get that force. This is clearly a deeply personal song – if you don’t believe me just watch the video (https://youtu.be/2LR4GjfvBVY) and tell me that you can’t see that behind, inside, there’s been a waterfall of tears. She’s in such fine voice throughout.
The high point of the show for me is ‘My Boat’, Tift’s rendering of a poem by short-story writer Raymond Carver. Whether Carver was much of a sailor or not, he clearly loved the idea of a special space filled with people who would share their good times with him and vice versa, taking a trip “a little way down the coast, listening to the Rolling Stones.” But in these fearful times, Tift has turned this into a refrain of defiance and a message of inclusive hope that causes tears to rise and throat to constrict. Maybe we can be ok ? “No-one will be denied on my boat” she sings, “no getting ahead or falling behind on my boat.” Are you listening, Donald ?
If you want a sense of how it sounded tonight then take a look at this performance from 2015 https://g.co/kgs/2J0rwx.
There’s a charming moment at the last as the gig closes when Tift steps out from behind the mic, and sings from the front of the stage unamplified, taking us back where it all began with “Bramble Rose”. It’s aways been a bittersweet train for sure, and it’s still rolling, and we’re happy to be onboard, looking forward to whatever sights and sounds come next.