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Tift Merritt proves satisfying, warm, heartfelt

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, August 6, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The setting may have been most unusual for Tift Merritt - the Museum of Fine Arts - but the venue must have agreed with the soulful, sometimes rootsy singer quite well because the diminutive performer put on a most satisfying, warm and heartfelt show.

Merritt has enjoyed a few twists and turns in her career going from a more country sound on her earlier efforts to a potpourri of country, roots, soulful and chanteuse songs on "Another Country," out earlier this year. Much of "Another Country" was written by Merritt in Paris where she lived for stretches of time and ended up writing even though she held no expectations of herself of doing so. Merritt certainly stood behind the new material because she played almost every single song from it, starting with "Morning Is My Destination." Highlights included "I Know What I'm Looking For Now" and the close of the regular set, "Something To Me."

The fact of the matter is whether old or new, the material really suited Merritt quite well, which was a key reason the concert worked as strongly as it did. There were no low points or stretches where it drifted into tedium. Merritt can sing softly or rock harder, putting forth the necessary effort. And Merritt gets into the songs herself, swaying with the music or kicking her leg. The energy of Merritt and her four-piece band was quite palpable.

Merritt was abetted throughout the 80-minute show by a strong band. While long-time sidekick Zeke Hutchins kept a good beat, the standout was Danny Eisenberg on keyboards. Time and again, he infused the songs with the soulful, Muscle Shoals sounding burst the songs required.

This was certainly not a paint by the numbers show because Merritt used the room to her benefit. She purposefully went off mic a number of times during the concert, giving her voice a softness that made the music even more touching ("Keep You Happy"). Merritt switched often between keyboards and acoustic guitar (she played electric on one song) as needed,

And she is a warm performer, who was in touch with her surroundings. The near-sell out crowd gave Merritt a deserved hearty response several times during the show with a few standing ovations leaving Merritt clearly appreciative. Several times, she got excited about a baby in the audience who loudly said "yay" after Merritt finished one song. That led to Merritt latter telling a humorous story from her wilder days about playing at an elementary school after having been up very late the night before writing and drinking and then surprisingly (for her) playing before 500 kids with no appropriate songs. Merritt called it "my best gig ever...until the one tonight."

She was joking, of course, about the second part of the phrase, but when all was said and done, that may not have been far off the mark.

Canadian Jason Collett opened the show with a good set of generally mid-tempo songs. Collett is a member of the well-respected Broken Social Scene of which Leslie Feist is also a member, but also has his own solo career going. He sang two brand new songs that hit harder musically than most of the rest of the material and also were poppier sounding, but they also sounded very good.