Halifax Urban Folk Festival (HUFF) organizer Mike Campbell has had Tift Merritt on his list of potential performers for some time now. And this year, with the North Carolina-based Americana artist returning to the road with her new record, Stitch of the World, the stars aligned.
"I always wanted to come to Nova Scotia, and now that I'm here I always want to come back," said Merritt from the Carleton stage Saturday night (September 3). She later added: "You guys have a run on all the good things: farmers' markets, oysters, nice people, Anne Murray… what the fuck?"
Another of Merritt's Nova Scotia favourites: singer-songwriter Rose Cousins, a friend, who led the customary HUFF songwriters' circle featuring the weekend's other headliners (John K. Samson and Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness) to kick off the evening. Merritt later invited Cousins on-stage twice during her set, providing gorgeous harmonies to Stitch of the World's "My Boat" and the encore performance of "Supposed to Make You Happy."
As for the HUFF custom of the Halifax All-Stars — headliners perform with a backing band of local players, except for a handful of solo songs — well, that played out a little differently than usual. For one, the All-Stars (like guitarist Jamie Robinson and keyboardist Leith Fleming-Smith, shredded a mean organ solo on "Ain't Looking Closely") were joined by Merritt's partner Eric Heywood, whose pedal steel added heft and texture to the night's sound.
But the All-Stars also gave the night one of its best moments when Merritt prepared to perform solo. "Travelling Alone" wasn't one of the songs the band had rehearsed, but rather than the five players having to leave and return to the stage, they stayed put and listened along with the crowd. Suddenly, though, Robinson had figured out the melody and was adding a mandolin part. A few more bars and it was a full-band performance, one Merritt led to a rousing conclusion.
"This has been a treat," said Merritt, noting it's been a long time since she found herself playing with a band of mostly strangers.
Stitch of the World got most of the attention Saturday night, the band finding groove and rollicking drive in songs like the album's title track and "Heartache is an Uphill Climb." But there were a few moments for Merritt's back catalogue too, like Tambourine's "Stray Paper" and "Good Hearted Man," or Bramble Rose's title track.
And through it all, Merritt's voice took centre-stage, its upper edges burnt with a fevered rasp and made each note ache with feeling. The sold-out crowd hung on its every note, and based on their enthusiastic response, many would clearly welcome the chance to welcome that voice back to Nova Scotia soon.