The last time Tift Merritt played a hometown show, she sold out Rough Trade in Williamsburg. Thursday night at the Lincoln Center Atrium, the seats were full, and there were plenty of people lined along the wall toward Columbus Avenue watching her take a break from the ongoing Andrew Bird tour for a rare duo show with guitar genius Eric Heywood. Where was everybody else? For most people in this city, Lincoln Center is a lot easier to get to than Williamsburg.
Whatever the case, the show was in a lot of ways a reprise of Emmylou Harris’ concert across the street the previous night. Where that one was a launching pad for innumerable, soulful, intense solos from guitarist Jedd Hughes and pedal steel player Steve Fishell, this one gave Heywood a platform for his purist, incisive, similarly lyrical chops, on both pedal steel and acoustic guitar. It helped that he had Merritt’s equally intense, tuneful songs to play those solos on.
Merritt has never sung better, varying her delivery from the angst-ridden, throaty chirp she’s been relying on over the last few years, to every possible shade of crystalline and clear. Midway through the show, she and Heywood moved to a central mic, then backed away from it and the volume actually rose as Merritt leaned back and belted. Admitting to being especially wired on caffeine, she made good on a promise to chat up the crowd. Some of her banter coyly hinted at background on her vivid yet enigmatic storytelling. She explained how the friend whose North Carolina beach house Merritt had rented had misidentified herself in one particular balmy, summery number. And Spring, Merritt’s hauntingly insistent anthem about living at peak intensity (this one lit up by Heywood’s creepy, smoky pedal steel) turned out to be inspired by the tree outside Merritt’s apartment window. But her most revealing comment was that “no song is about any one thing,” which capsulizes her m.o. as a writer.
Sweet Spot revealed itself not as a love song but as an individualist’s forlorn lament, longing for an escape to where she can be finally be herself. Moving to the piano, Merritt described Small Town Relations as “vicious,” and sang that portrait of smalltown nosiness with a dismissive vengefulness that hit a cruel, whispery sneer on the final verse while Heywood matched her simmering rage line for line. Later on, he colored the all-acoustic songs with elegant flatpicking, tersely bending leads that mirrored his work on the steel, and even flickering Pat Metheny-esque pastoral colors on a hypnotic, vamping number toward the end of the set. Merritt sent a graceful, Aimee Mann-tinged shout-out to buskers with one anthem, weighed existential angst versus contentment on Traveling Alone and Still Not Home, hit a plaintive, wistful peak early on in a raptly gorgeous take of Feel of the World and encored with a quietly triumphant version of Feeling of Beauty. Merritt and Heywood have since returned to the Andrew Bird tour (which, judging from their Central Park Summerstage show in late June, is amazing); the remaining dates are here.