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Tift Merritt with Romantica (Thursday, May 5th, 2005, Fine Line Music Café)

By David Rachac

Tift Merritt at the Fine Line - Photo by Steve Cohen of musicphotography.com (Click photo or here for more photos from this show.)

Tift Merritt and her killer band wowed the crowd at the Fine Line Thursday night in one of the best shows I have seen there in a while.

I was kind of dreading going into the show, fearful that the sometimes chatty crowd would drown out Tift and openers Romantica during the softer songs, but my fears were unfounded. With Romantica opening the show, the crowd was engaged immediately by the slow, quiet musings of frontman Ben Kyle and the band. Taking a page from Cowboy Junkies’ whisper-rather-than-a-shout handbook, Romantica drew the crowd in setting up an evening where the audience was giving all of their attention to the performers. Romantica has two shows coming up, May 20th at the Uptown Bar and June 4th at the HowWasTheShow 3rd Anniversary Party.

Within seconds of Tift and company kicking into their first song (“Ain’t Looking Closely”), I was taken aback at how tight they were. Seeing them last year at her hometown record release in Chapel Hill, NC, they were obviously a band that was getting to know each other. While the rhythm section of drummer Zeke Hutchins and bassist Jay Brown has been with Tift from the beginning, guitarist Brad Rice (ex-Ryan Adams) and keyboardist Dan Eisenberg were added to her touring band after Tambourine was completed. It is obvious that the months of touring have turned this band into a musical force to be reckoned with.

Before kicking into “Write My Ticket,” Merritt said she was pleased to see so many people in front of the stage, because she had been afraid that it was going to be a “sit down kind of crowd.” She need not have worried. The first five songs were all fairly up-tempo, including “U-Turn” (by James Carr), where Brad Rice and Dan Eisenberg traded fat solos, and the crowd responded enthusiastically.

The middle part of the set saw the band bringing it down a little with “Still Pretending” and “Plainest Thing.” Before starting “Wait It Out,” Tift called an audible and performed a solo version of “Supposed To Make You Happy” on acoustic guitar with Jay Brown on backing vocals, followed by a soulful rendition of Good Hearted Man. But they turned it up again at the end, finishing with “Wait It Out,” “Tambourine” and “Shadow In The Way.”

For the encore, Tift and Jay came back out with a solo version of “Are You Still In Love With Me,” before the whole band joined them for “When I Cross Over” and a cover of Van Morrison’s “Comfort You.”

Tift Merritt has an engaging stage presence, plays solid rhythm guitar and has a voice that can melt any hardened heart. Brad Rice is an absolute guitar god, throwing down crunchy licks or sweet slides, and Dan Eisenberg plays keyboards with the right combination of flair and restraint. With Jay Brown and Zeke Hutchins forming a solid pocket for everyone else to play off of, Tift’s vocal gifts were given the opportunity to shine.

After the end of this leg of the tour (rescheduled from March because they joined the Elvis Costello tour), Tift Merritt has several one-off shows over the summer, but they are talking about touring again in September, possibly with Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion. After seeing the Sarah Lee and Johnny show last month at the Cedar, a Tift/Sarah Lee double bill would be very welcome.

David Rachac is at drachac@rachac.com

Set list:

Ain’t Looking Closely
Write My Ticket
Virginia, No One Can Warn You
Laid A Highway
U-Turn
Still Pretending
Plainest Thing
Stray Paper
Late Night Pilgrim
Neighborhood
Supposed To Make You Happy
Good Hearted Man
Wait It Out
Tambourine
Shadow In The Way
Are You Still In Love With Me?
When I Cross Over
Comfort You (V. Morrison cover)