Merritt, shown in Texas, kept her voice down at the Birchmere, but not enough of the time.
Merritt, shown in Texas, kept her voice down at the Birchmere, but not enough of the time. (By Sasha Haagensen -- Getty Images For Directv)
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Monday, March 24, 2008

Tift Merritt

The Birchmere was probably the quietest venue in D.C. on Friday night, as Tift Merritt sang, off microphone, the lilting "Supposed to Make You Happy," backed only by her soft acoustic guitar. Two band mates joined her in vocal harmonies, but the focus was all on Merritt's pensive tone and clear delivery.

Merritt did not show the same restraint for most of the rest of her 90-minute set; more often than not, her four-piece band replaced subtlety with volume and speed. The resulting sound was pretty but generic: Songs that started out with the sweet vocal clarity of Laura Cantrell quickly morphed into Sheryl Crow-style adult alterna-pop ("Another Country"). The expressive solo introduction to "Something to Me" was quickly overpowered by her band; in the process, Merritt's airy voice lost its nuance as she strained to be heard over the other musicians.

There were a few exceptions that allowed Merritt's voice and lyrics to shine; the band kept its contributions minimal on "Keep You Happy" and the outstanding "Tender Branch." Merritt's other compelling strategy was to turn up her own volume to match that of her band: She switched from her usual instruments (acoustic guitar or keyboards) to electric guitar for a pair of songs mid-set. That choice pushed her music more into rock territory, and the louder, more aggressive sound echoed the soaring choruses of "My Heart Is Free."

-- Catherine P. Lewis

Leon Russell

Leon Russell's remarkable half-century in music peaked in the early 1970s -- which, on the evidence of his plodding, workmanlike set of piano-based blues-rock Friday night at the State Theatre, was a long time ago. Despite dozens of albums to his credit, the white-bearded Oklahoman devoted much of his 85-minute show to rock and blues gentry: Dylan, the Stones, Willie Dixon, Jerry Lee Lewis.

The heavy reliance on covers was appropriate for a musician more famous for the countless hits and classic albums he played on or produced than for his own large catalogue. But there was nothing revelatory about Russell's versions of "Hoochie Coochie Man" or "Georgia on My Mind." And his tin-eared redo of "Wild Horses" as a bouncy, mid-tempo shuffle is as egregious a fouling as any Stones classic has ever suffered. (To be fair, the "Great Balls of Fire" that kicked off a show-closing medley had some kick, but that would be a hard song for one of the most respected piano men in rock to screw up.)

Among Russell's originals, only "A Song for You" stood out, performed after a rest in which he looked on while guitarist Chris Simmons positively tore up Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues," followed by keyboardist Brian Lee's take of Jackson Browne's "Rosie." These performances were the evening's best, but Russell didn't introduce the men responsible. In fact, he barely spoke at all. Concealed all night by a 10-gallon hat, mirror shades and his keyboard, he was as much a non-presence onstage as he was in the sound mix, which buried his vocals -- and everything else -- beneath gunky layers of keys.

Russell's credits are legendary. History will no doubt pay him due respect by overlooking tired performances like this one.

--Chris Klimek

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