Tift Merritt at the Birchmere, Alexandria, VA, Friday 21 March 2008
The Birchmere was probably the quietest venue in D.C. on Friday night, as Tift Merritt sang, off microphone, the lilting "Supposed to Make You Happy," backed only by her soft acoustic guitar. Two band mates joined her in vocal harmonies, but the focus was all on Merritt's pensive tone and clear delivery.
Merritt did not show the same restraint for most of the rest of her 90-minute set; more often than not, her four-piece band replaced subtlety with volume and speed. The resulting sound was pretty but generic: Songs that started out with the sweet vocal clarity of Laura Cantrell quickly morphed into Sheryl Crow-style adult alterna-pop ("Another Country"). The expressive solo introduction to "Something to Me" was quickly overpowered by her band; in the process, Merritt's airy voice lost its nuance as she strained to be heard over the other musicians.
There were a few exceptions that allowed Merritt's voice and lyrics to shine; the band kept its contributions minimal on "Keep You Happy" and the outstanding "Tender Branch." Merritt's other compelling strategy was to turn up her own volume to match that of her band: She switched from her usual instruments (acoustic guitar or keyboards) to electric guitar for a pair of songs mid-set. That choice pushed her music more into rock territory, and the louder, more aggressive sound echoed the soaring choruses of "My Heart Is Free."
-- Catherine P. Lewis
.: Originally published: The Washington Post, 23 March 2008; Page C05