Dec. 31, 2000, marked the last night that alt-country singer-songwriter Tift Merritt was officially a waitress.
What a difference a year makes.
With a national tour under her belt, a Lost Highway Records contract in hand and her first album, Bramble Rose, almost ready for release, Merritt had as much to celebrate on New Year's Eve as the all-ages collection of young hipsters and mature country fans populating the Cat's Cradle.
And celebrate she did. While Merritt's only recorded work -- a track on The Garden Place compilation and her duet album with the Two Dollar Pistols -- tends to be ballad-heavy, Merritt and her long-time band the Carbines steamrolled through all manner of southern country motifs, from honky-tonk to playing around with a few blues structures to straight-ahead classic balladeering.
The sheer energy emitting from the lengthy set, let alone Merritt and her band, was surprising. Merritt's voice has always had shades of Emmylou Harris' serenity, but there's a fair of amount of Bonnie Raitt's grit as well. And she can veer back and forth from the two dichotomous styles authentically and seamlessly. Her self-described "amazing harmonizing bass player" Jay Brown serves as good a vocal counterpoint to Merritt as John Howie did on their duet album.
Those who had heard her recorded work weren't surprised by the crystalline quality of her voice, but her very physical stage presence has more in common with Janis Joplin or Bruce Springsteen than the Red Dirt Girl. Somewhat contradictory to her petite and diminutive stature, Merritt throws her whole body into her performance, whether it's dipping into a guitar groove or belting a ballad like her life depended on it. It's the mark of true star power -- of someone who loves what they do.
While Merritt maintained the central focus of the evening, her performance was nicely matched by the Carbines' usual cast of characters, plus the cello of Chris Stamey and Corey Sims and Greg Decker's horns. The musicality of the full band was powerful, but her band neither dominated nor sulked into the background like a honky-tonk version of Blondie. It was clear that while Merritt might receive top billing, this was a solid and cohesive band that put as much of themselves into the performance as Merritt continually did.
At the same time, Merritt was hardly considered the "girl singer" clich
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