Tift Merritt, Austin Music Hall, Friday, March 16

Live Shots: South by Southwest 2001

Tift Merritt

Austin Music Hall, Friday, March 16

During last year's South by Southwest, Chapel Hill's Tift Merritt played on the patio in front of Opal Divine's to an audience of maybe 30 people. This year, she opened the Lost Highway label showcase at the airplane hangar they call the Austin Music Hall in front of a much larger crowd, one that was early arriving and probably looking to stay until Lucinda Williams did her headlining set. What a difference a year makes. Merritt showed that she belongs in such surroundings, as she and her bandmates filled the hall with country pop, even if they didn't quite take over the expansive stage. There's a lot to like about the young singer-songwriter. She possesses a big, unforgettable voice, writes hook-filled songs, and is quite a looker to boot. Comparisons to Maria McKee when she first started with Lone Justice seem most appropriate, as Merritt, like McKee, can belt out a love song, plead for mercy, or simply rock out naturally and without affectation. Both singers also possess the good looks to make normal men melt in their presence, but are also unafraid to work up a sweat while performing their heartfelt music. Merritt provided a most telling moment, when between songs she commented that last year she had been in the Music Hall for the BMI showcase and pointed to a spot out in the audience where she recalled standing. "Tonight I feel like Cinderella," she said. Lucky or not, Merritt proved that she belonged up there, providing enough evidence that she's a star in the making and certainly an artist to watch.

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