Tift Merritt makes great records with country-rock sweetening, but at WAMC on Thursday she sang solo and the results were powerfully soulful and edgy.
In her second show on the road after her honeymoon, the petite singer-songwriter sang first at the piano — the sweet, plaintive “Another Country.” The song is the title track of the year-old album that supplied most of the songs in her 90-minute, encore-extended show.
Moving to guitar next for “Hopes Too High,” she showed why her old Gibson has holes scratched through its red top, strumming wide, way past the edges of the instrument. Her voice went wide, too, like a one-woman version of the superstar sometime group Trio. She had Emmylou’s fragility and perfectly placed breaks, Dolly Parton’s sweetness balanced with belting power, and Linda Ronstadt’s rocking flair. She punched up uptempo tunes with the Gospel-y rasp of Bonnie Bramlett in her prime.
Nothing sounded borrowed, though, because the songs are originals and all hers. She constructs them boldly, unafraid of steep intervals and stop-on-a-dime tempo shifts.
“My Heart is Free” honored war dead without maudlin mourning. In “Broken,” her declaration of strength was heartbreaking — “I think that I’ll break, but I mend” — and “Good Hearted Man” was an open, fearless pledge of love, followed by its mirror image, “Keep You Happy,” in which she changed the refrain at the fade to “keep me happy.”
A powerhouse guitarist, she seemed happiest at the piano, proclaiming her love for it and threatening to chain herself to it. Like a southern Laura Nyro (born in Houston, Merritt was raised in North Carolina), Merritt played with percussive but orchestral power. Playing guitar, she hit rock-goddess poses, dramatic but not over the top.
Merritt bravely introduced some new songs. “Bar With a TV Set” had honky-tonk heft, but in the idealistic Obama tribute “Do Something Good,” sincerity and vocal beauty skated her past a lyrical rough spot or two. Her last encore (four songs deep) was even braver: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” on a dare from her soundman who saw her not manage to figure it out at soundcheck. She repeated the bridge to get it right, just as she restarted “Bramble Rose” earlier — and she absolutely nailed both, ultimately.
Troubadour Patrick Park used a wise way with words, an uncommonly percussive acoustic finger-style guitar attack, a pleasant tenor and a gift for melodies to charm the crowd with a literate, lilting 45-minute opener. At first, it was all about the words as he sang three quiet first-person statements in a straightforward, unadorned, how-will-they-like-this? fashion, relaxing into his first guitar break in “The Lucky Ones,” a bigger-scale statement.
Even his proud-love songs — “You’re Enough” was the best — were of a modest scale in the writing, but he made his best songs soar with pretty melodies tailored to his voice.
Making his Albany debut, he demonstrated skills of Slaid Cleaves and Jimmy LaFave dimensions — easily qualifying for a comeback for his own show.