Tift Merritt sold out two shows at Club Passim on Sunday, taking a break in-between shows to put her 11-month old daughter to bed. If that sounds superhuman to you, that’s because it is. “Being a mother has shown me more music and joy,” Tift said to the crowd, “and also…” trailing off and letting a chorus of knowing laughter from the audience finish the thought. Throughout the set, she shared stories of life on the road and the backstory on songs, mostly from her most recent, spectacular album, Stitch of the World. As she walked off stage at the end of the night, people greeted her with appreciation and familiarity, as if we’d come to know her over the ninety minute set. One woman near me said to her friend, “What a great person,” and her friend replied, “I just want to hang out with her.” It is a real gift for an artist to be able to be humble and accessible, but also confident enough to hold the room. Tift held the crowd with rapt attention from start to finish, and gained some lifelong fans in the process.
She began her set with three stunning songs from the new record: “Wait for Me,” “Stitch of the World,” and “Heartache is an Uphill Climb.” Eric Heywood, on pedal steel, set a tone of expansiveness and color for Tift to play within. “Heartache” is a song that builds and builds, and by the end of it, she was belting.
She stayed on piano after “Heartache” to play “Small Talk Relations,” from Traveling Alone (2012). She mentioned in an interview with Joe Pug last year that Carole King was one of her influences, and these songs on the piano certainly echoed the sense of passion and vulnerability that encompasses much of King’s work. Heywood picked up an acoustic guitar for “Dusty Old Man,” a song Tift said was inspired by Bonnie Raitt’s first album; the song was fantastic, and it was nice to hear it in this stripped-down setting, as opposed to the full-band version on the album.
“I usually read one author at a time,” Tift said, “or watch one film director at a time, to get a sense of the whole of their work.” While recording Stitch, Tift was reading Raymond Carver, and came across his poem “My Boat.” She adapted it and Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, “liked it,” and approved it for release. The key lyric that Tift lifted up for us is “No getting ahead or falling behind on my boat,” which, Tift said, “sums up human relations.” Since “the whole world went to hell,” she said, “the meaning of this song’s gotten a lot more complicated. But it’s my invitation, and I will keep singing it as long as it’s needed.” This sentiment received a warm ovation and I heard several people joining in on the chorus.
When introducing “Another Country,” Tift reflected that sometimes she looks back on songs she wrote years ago and finds that she’s looking at a younger version of herself, and, consequently, those songs have been essentially put away. But, “some songs grow with you.” She began the song, and people drew closer and leaned in. Her voice was soaring–I know that’s a cliche, but it’s the only correct word to describe what was happening on that stage. She followed with “Eastern Light,” which might be my favorite song on Stitch, and again Sauser-Monnig complemented the vocal performance with harmonies that were subtle and full of depth; Heywood’s accompaniment on pedal was perfect.
Passim is a place where the green room is not accessible from the stage–performers walk through the audience to get there. So, eschewing the tradition of leaving the stage before the encore, Heywood and Sauser-Monning simply stepped off for a moment, leaving Tift to perform “Good Hearted Man,” solo. A woman near me was bursting– with joy, with gratitude, but also clearly with anticipation. She was so happy to hear this song (and understandably so–it’s a gem) and it was such a perfect example of what live music is about. Tift wrapped the set with “Love Soldiers On,” a song she wrote when she needed some hope. She said she was on her way to Pittsburgh with her daughter in the morning, keeping her fingers crossed for a children’s museum. The superhuman tour continues in the midwest this week, out west in May, and in the UK and Europe this fall. Get there if you can–this show will leave you hopeful, and that’s no small gift these days.