- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

“Tall and statuesque” is how short-stuff Tift Merritt described herself, in jest, Friday night at the Birchmere.

She may be a featherweight, 100 pounds if she’s lucky, but the North Carolinian singer-songwriter can vocally punch like, well, Aretha Franklin.

Miss Merritt, who hit the stage at 11 and crossed into the wee hours, tangled with giants such as folk legend Townes Van Zandt (she dismissed her four band mates, including the District’s own Brad Rice on lead guitar, for an intimate acoustic cover of “Tecumseh Valley”) and Memphis rarity James Carr for the smokin’ R&B; of “Your Love Made a U-Turn,” also found on Miss Merritt’s latest CD, “Tambourine.”

For the night’s closer, Miss Merritt brought out the warm-up act Chatham County Line, the Raleigh, N.C. bluegrass aficionados, for a harmony-rich rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”

Against gems such as that, any young artist’s material is bound to shrink. But Miss Merritt, 30, is turning out to be a formidable songwriter. Her debut album, 2002’s “Bramble Rose,” was rich in quiet, rootsy songs such as its second track, “Virginia, No One Can Warn You” and the stirring “When I Cross Over,” which Miss Merritt saved for an encore Friday.

“Tambourine” emerged last year, upping the electricity and revealing a multidimensional singer with equal facility for funky Memphis soul and Stonesy stomp. “Bramble’s” nod in that direction, a tightly wound rocker called “Neighborhood,” suffered from a Sheryl Crow-like dilution, but “Tambourine” opened up the throttle.

Because of sound-equipment troubles or, perhaps, road fatigue, the surging “Wait It Out” sounded phoned-in, with Miss Merritt failing to produce any of the recorded version’s heat. The show generally was too front-loaded with midtempo songs such as the homesick Carolina mill-town tribute “Laid a Highway” and the gospelly “Good Hearted Man.”

At Miss Merritt’s last area gig, I noticed that fans like to ply her with bourbon. She practically invited free shooters with an amusing war story of just having played a show in which the band shared space with an apple-martini party. No froufrou drinks for Miss Merritt, thank you very much; she likes her liquor the hard way.

Whatever the reason, Miss Merritt only got better as Friday evening wore on, unleashing grittier fare such as “Stray Paper” and the frenetic “I Am Your Tambourine.” She shook a tambourine to the boogie-woogie beat of the latter — the percussion instrument was as big as her head.

With a voice and stage presence like that, though, size really doesn’t matter.

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