Archive for the ‘Tift Merritt’ Category

The annual Old Grey Cat Awards fete, in which the Album of the Year nominees gather in the great hall that is our living room while anxiously awaiting the word, was more crowded this year than most. Were the Las Vegas oddsmakers correct? Or would an underdog be crowned king or queen? (Canines are much loved by the admittedly feline-centric OGC Committee, so it’s always a possibility.) By the time the gala’s host finally scampered onto the mantel to bellow the mews, well, the tension could’ve been cut with a claw.

Except, as often happens with this, the most ballyhooed of music awards, the many contenders could and should have saved their Xanax for another night. Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life was and is just one of those albums. And the runners-up…aside from the late entry from the sister collective known as the Staves, not surprising. (The winner and four runners-up can be seen here.)

But awards ceremonies never tell the full story of a year.

While sorting through the year’s top contenders for my Album of the Year honors, I was shocked – but not appalled – by the many great albums and EPs released in 2017. I thought I’d share my numbers 6 through 11 – aka, the Honorable Mentions – here. Some I reviewed during the course of the year; others, unsurprisingly, I didn’t. They’re all worth buying or, at the least, adding to one’s Apple Music or Spotify library.

6) Garland Jeffreys – 14 Steps to Harlem. “As a whole, 14 Steps to Harlem finds Garland looking back, surveying the present and contemplating the future – and doing it all to melodies that linger long after the music has ceased.” Here’s the title track:

7) Paul WellerA Kind Revolution. “Long Long Road” is such a tremendous song that, even if the rest of the album was just so-so, A Kind Revolution would be an honorable mention. But the album is among Weller’s best.

8) Tift MerrittStitch of the World. “While we listened to it earlier today, me for probably the 10th time this week, Diane noted that certain songs would’ve been at home on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel – or, I’d add, Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner. I.e., there’s a timelessness about them.” Here’s one of its stellar tracks,  “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb.”

9) Kasey ChambersDragonfly. “Ain’t No Little Girl” is just tremendous, bluesy and – in concert, especially – jaw-dropping in its intensity. The remainder of the double album is damn good, too.

And, two ties at No. 10…

10) Paul McCartney – Flowers in the Dirt (deluxe edition). “The set features the original album; a second disc of 10 demos recorded with Elvis Costello; a third disc of 9 of the same demo songs recorded with the nascent Flowers in the Dirt band and produced by Elvis; a fourth disc of b-sides and remixes; and a DVD of videos and behind-the-scenes stuff. ”

10) Natalie Merchant – Butterfly (available as part of The Natalie Merchant Collection). Here’s “Frozen Charlotte” from it…

Any year that I see Juliana Hatfield in concert is a good year. And a year when I see her twice? Logic, at least my logic, says it should be good times two – i.e., great. And to see Juliana cover not one but two Olivia Newton-John songs while backed by Wesley Stace & the English UK? The surreal sweetness of the moment just can’t be beat. For that alone, 2017 should be damn near the best year of them all.

But this has not been a normal year. It’s as if someone spiked the water supply with mescaline in January and the hallucinations have yet to end. I’ll sidestep diatribes about America’s answer to Hugo Chavez, the human Scrooge McDucks that call themselves Republicans, and the leches that call themselves men, and instead share this:

When the music starts, we just slip away – just like a river rollin’ down…

Live music often has a more visceral impact than via CD, LP or digital download. It’s an immediate connection. You feed off the performer, he or she feeds off you and … you’re there, wherever there is, not stoned but STONED, and not from drink or drugs but from the music itself. The worries of the world cease to be, albeit for a few hours, and when you leave the venue you feel spiritually renewed.

From Lights Out in January to Patterson Hood (of the Drive-by Truckers) this past Thursday, and including such stalwarts as Graham Parker, Garland Jeffreys and Shawn Colvin, we enjoyed more live music this year (21 shows by my count) than the past few years combined. Some shows were good, others great, and a handful absolutely sublime.

First, though, a caveat: As all things “best of” on this blog, I work from a deck stacked by my aging demographic, idiosyncratic tastes, and budget. I enjoy singer-songwriters with folk-rock and/or country overtones, and delight in discovering new artists within that realm, and generally rock out to the same artists I’ve rocked out to forever and a day, including (but not limited to) Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, the Kinks, Joan Jett, Paul Weller and Juliana Hatfield, among others.

And, with that, here’s Remember December, Vol. I: Concerts of the Year. (Click through to read my original reviews.)

1) Paul Weller with Lucy Rose at the TLA, 10/4/17. This show fell in what was the awful week that included the mass shooting at a country-music festival in Las Vegas and the passing of Tom Petty. Perhaps that explains the jubilation I felt at being able to forget, if only for a few moments, and let go. And, too, it was just a killer concert.

2) Kasey Chambers at the World Cafe Live, 7/5/17. Breathtaking. That’s the only word for this show, which found the Aussie country-music maven weaving heartfelt odes from thin air. Even now, watching this video, I’m stunned at how good she is.

3) The Juliana Hatfield Three at the Boot & Saddle, 4/24/17; and Juliana Hatfield with Wesley Stace & the English UK at the Ardmore Theater, 10/12/17. When formulating this list, I found myself going back and forth as to which of these shows should be third or fourth on my list. At the Boot & Saddle, Juliana and the Three personified “brutal grace.” It was raw, raucous, loud and great, and – given than the bulk of the setlist was Pussycat-heavy, cathartic. The only strike against it were the muffled vocals.

The Ardmore show, both in her solo set and when backed by the English UK, was near the reverse, with an expansive set list that included such gems as “Slow Motion” and “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” and way-cool covers of two Olivia Newton-John songs. Here’s one:

Watching that clip again, just now, I couldn’t help but to smile.

Anyway, both shows spoke to me in equal measure. Her songs, new, old, rocking, mid-tempo or ballad, are ingrained in my soul. So, why rank one above the other? For the purposes of this list, the two concerts are a tie…

4) Courtney Marie Andrews at the Boot & Saddle, 5/9/2017. As I wrote in my review, this was as magical and mesmerizing a concert that I’ve had the pleasure to witness in my concert-going career. Courtney reminds me of Shawn Colvin circa the early and mid-‘90s, who synthesized a wide swath of influences into a hypnotic whole.

5) The Staves at the World Cafe Live, 3/9/2017. What did I love about this show? Everything! Within moments of its start, it felt as if we’d stepped through a time portal to some point in the early ‘70s. About the only thing missing: bell-bottom jeans.

And, finally…honorable mentions: Bruce Springsteen on Broadway was the definition of compelling, but not a conventional concert due to the monologues. Thus, I’m not including it within my Top 5 (though, if I did, it wouldn’t knock Weller from the top spot). Also, Garland Jeffreys at the World Cafe Live Upstairs was grand; Lulu at the Sellersville Theater was wondrous; Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer at the World Cafe Live were sublime; and Tift Merritt at the World Cafe Live was utterly captivating.

As Tift sings, “Love Soldiers On.” And it does.

Tift Merritt delivered a spellbinding set at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Wednesday that was bookended by two sublime tunes from her wondrous 2017 Stitch of the World album: “Wait for Me” and “Love Soldiers On.”

In between was a torrent of memorable new songs – “Dusty Old Man,” “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb,” “My Boat,” “Stitch of the World,” “Icarus,” “Proclamation Bones,” “Something Came Over Me” and “Eastern Light” – and a sprinkling of past classics, including “Traveling Alone” and “Small Talk Relations” (from her 2012 Traveling Alone album); “Feel of the World” and “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight” (from her 2010 See You on the Moon album); “Good Hearted Man” from her 2004 sophomore set, Tamborine; and the title track to her 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, which she joked would be on her tombstone.

As the above videos demonstrate, she was simply magnetic. Her voice was sure, strong and (as always) sweet despite a slight case of the sniffles. She alternated between acoustic guitar (several, actually) and keyboards except for “Proclamation Bones,” when she chopped chords with an electric axe. Joining her on stage was her beau Eric Heywood, whose credits include Son Volt, the Pretenders, Jayhawks and Ray LaMontagne. He played steel guitar most of the night, but joined her on acoustic for a few mid-set sit-down songs.

During “Icarus,” based on the Greek myth, it occurred to me – and not for the first time – that music artists and their audiences are somewhat akin to the singer and narrator in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” If you’re unfamiliar with the 1934 poem by Wallace Stevens, don’t worry; it just means that you weren’t an English major. I should mention that I’m decades removed from those years, so I’m sure I’m off in my analysis. But, in it, the narrator and a friend observe a woman singing beside the sea at dusk – and from that simple scene comes an insight into the human experience: we instill a semblance of order on a world that is, in fact, beyond our control; and that semblance has a ripple effect on those who surround us.

That’s my short and sloppy take, at any rate.

To continue in that vein: the artist is the “single artificer of the world,” creating a reality that is his or hers alone, though others can observe and be profoundly moved by it – which is what occurs to the narrator of the poem, as the sixth stanza indicates. Stevens takes it a step further in the poem’s last lines, however, when he introduces the “blessed rage for order” – the semblance of control that comes from the singer seemingly channeling the sea (when, of course, she could and did not).

This night, in a sense, Tift Merritt was that (far more articulate) singer by the sea, conveying the “ghostlier demarcations” and “keener sounds” that reveal “ourselves” and “our origins.” For a brief time, she infused order and beauty into an unordered and, all too often, ugly world.

Or something like that.

As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

There’s but three criteria that I use when selecting my “essential” recommendations. They have to be at least five years old; they have to be excellent from start to finish; and they have to be albums that I think everyone should hear, at least once. Why five years? Because, otherwise, many picks would be drawn from my current obsessions, a few of which – as the weeks morph into months – prove to be fleeting. But if it’s something I’ve returned to, time and again, over a period of years… that says something, right there, I think.

tiftmerritt_stitchoftheworldThat said, Tift Merritt’s recent Stitch of the World is a tremendous effort that will more than likely be in the running for my 2017 Album(s) of the Year selections come December. While we listened to it earlier today, me for probably the 10th time this week, Diane noted that certain songs would’ve been at home on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel – or, I’d add, Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner. I.e., there’s a timelessness about them. And if my hunch about Stitch of the World comes to pass, it won’t be the first time that the North Carolina songbird has flown to the top of my personal charts. In 2012, her heralded Traveling Alone was an honorable mention; and in 2010, thanks to a technical foul of sorts (Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul had yet to be released in the U.S.), she perched at the top with her sublime See You on the Moon, which features such wondrous tunes as “Mixtape,” “Engine to Turn” and “Feel of the World.”

I’ve returned to both albums many times in the years since their releases and, in fact, ranked See You on the Moon as her best work to date for quite some time. Yet, when I choose to listen to something by Tift now, it’s not my first pick – Another Country, my No. 2 for 2008, is that.

Following the release of her previous, Grammy Award-nominated album, Tambourine (2004), she embarked on a world tour that, from what she said in interviews promoting Another Country, left her worn-out. So she took a much-deserved break and relocated to Paris, where she rented an apartment that came with a piano. The result: an album for the ages.

As I wrote back in 2008, “It’s plaintive, yearning and hopeful, often in the same song, and reminds me of everything good from the third Flying Burrito Brothers album, the one when Rick Roberts joined the fold with the majestic ‘Colorado.’ ‘I think I will break/but I mend,’ she sings – like an Americana songbird, I should mention – on the meditative ‘Broken.’”

Another highlight: “Hopes Too High,” which sounds to my ears like an outtake from that Flying Burrito Brothers album…

The piece d’resistance, however, is what may well be the greatest epiphany-set-to-music yet written: “I Know What I’m Looking for Now.”