Last time I saw Tift Merritt, in March at South by Southwest, she and her band sounded terrific. Saturday night at the NC Museum of Art Amphitheatre, they were somehow even better. Five months of touring has tightened the ensemble immeasurably, and they hit every little nuance and change just right. Bassist Jay Brown, especially, has emerged as the James Jamerson of the alternative-country set, with prominently melodic basslines (plus great harmony vocals) that put more rhythmic punch into every song. Thanks to a killer bass part from Brown, "My Heart Is Free" had a rhythmic swing to match its hook.
But another star of the show was the venue, where Merritt recorded her "Home Is Loud" live album three years ago. "Supposed to Make You Happy" yielded an especially magical moment, the sort you can only get outdoors. The rest of the band backed off as Merritt and Brown sang it, accompanied by acoustic guitar and harmonica -- and at exactly the right instant, a far-away train horn wafting in from the south (at just the right pitch, no less).
"I've been hearing that train my whole life," Merritt marveled afterward. "And I just now realized that I wrote that song so I could play it here, with a train horn in the same key!"