Tonight I saw Tift Merritt at Union Hall in Park Slope. It was a nice surprise that Tift was playing solo again. She said she’ll be on tour for quite a while now with a backing band, so it was nice to catch another solo set. What was even nicer though was the reminder of how beautiful and personal her songs are live. The melodies don’t significantly differ from the albums and there are no live “bells or whistles,” yet they hit home during her live performances. The songs are beautiful on the albums, but I visualize their meaning so much more in the live setting. I think I have to attribute it to her ability to really connect with the audience. This is something that I think is quite difficult for a lot of singer-songwriters and it doomed a lot of the New Artist Showcase acts at Falcon Ridge. Tift seems to do it through fundamentals. Tonight I noticed, in addition to really putting her all into each song, she made really solid eye contact with all areas of the crowd. Basic, I know, but it seemed to bring each area of the audience in a little deeper.
The set list was quite similar to the last time I saw her – maybe a little heavier on the new songs which was great. I didn’t take notes but recall that the first four songs were “Can’t Keep from Tryin’,” “My Heart is Free,” “Virginia, No One Can Warn You,” and “Love is Another Country” all of which were beautiful, particularly the last. There was a particularly funny (and great) moment during “Virginia” when the woman next to me hiccuped really loudly. Tift kept going, but broke down and started laughing as did a number of the audience members before starting the song again from the beginning. I really respect the way that she handled the situation. She could have been annoyed or just plowed on with the song. Instead, though, by starting from the beginning she really respected the song and the audience. This rendition was quite good (though the song is so well written it might be unbreakable). Anyway, it was good and she changed the melody a bit on “warn you” from two notes to three. Subtle, but a nice touch. She also did “Supposed to Make You Happy” unmiked with harmonica which the audience really responded to. Also, the audience’s excitement at the first few bars of “Good Hearted Man” was awesome.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of things that detracted from this show. The first is venue-based. Union Hall has a bocce court. Now I think that’s great. What’s not so great is that it’s right over the performance space downstairs. It probably wouldn’t matter if AC/DC were playing down there, but when you have a singer-songwriter playing an acoustic set, it’s less than optimal. The second was an audience problem. There were quite a few talkers in the back. Now it was probably because there weren’t really any good sight lines to the low stage once you got beyond the third row behind the chairs. But everything that makes such small, intimate spaces great for live shows also lets a little chatter in the back of the room kill the mood. It really disappointed me, especially since the housing works crowd in November was so into the show and totally concentrated on each and every song.
Finally, Tift’s voice got a little hoarse when she pushed it starting in “Good Hearted Man.” I’m sure she has some sort of vocal training, so I’m guessing she was a little under the weather. It wasn’t the biggest of deals and I’m definitely of the camp that sometimes a little gravel in the old voice can be a good thing. It definitely added an edge to Dave Matthews’s voice during his set with Tim Reynolds at Farm Aid and Tom Waits certainly often puts it to good effect. In this case, though, it didn’t work out so well. The quality melodies on Tift’s songs don’t require a pure, beautiful voice that can be pure and beautiful and loud at the highs, but the songs do achieve an impact when they receive that treatment. Despite the hoarseness, she didn’t pull back on these swells. I’m sort of two minds about this. On the one hand I really respect the fact that she was going to give the audience her all no matter what. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if she had decided to pull back a little on the highs, the hoarseness might not have come through as much where it did. Still, she didn’t give up and the audience didn’t have a negative reaction. She kept on and did “Mille Tendreses” and a two-song encore–not too shabby. The crowd seemed enthused from start to finish and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Tift play her new hometown again with a rested voice and what I remember to be a great backing band.
A quick note on the venue: Union Hall bills itself as a “5,000 square foot bar, restaurant and live music venue in the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn” that “offers cozy firesides, a stately library, two indoor bocce courts, outdoor garden seating, and a downstairs bar and music venue.” This is all true and the bocce court above the performance space aside, I really can’t say enough good things about this place. Images like cozy fireside and stately library make me want to roll my eyes. I like a bar with a healthy dose of saw-dust on the floor. However, it’s all so well done at Union Hall that I loved it. They even had Abita Amber on tap. Need I say more? The lack of TV’s on the walls anywhere was another plus. I’ll be back for sure.