One question keeps bubbling up during the first half of Tift Merritt's Austin City Limits performance, which first aired in January 2006 as part of a split episode with fellow Triangle expatriate Ryan Adams: Was the crowd given a mid-grade animal tranquilizer before she started playing? Not that you'd expect the communal cabaret of an Arcade Fire taping or the kind of sloppy lovefest that surrounded Guided By Voices from a Merritt/Adams crowd, but the audience assembled for this appearance could barely fog a mirror.
There's a bias there, of course: You want to see the local hero—a woman I'd seen sing from a couple feet away in the Pine Hill Farm living room and a radio control room, and who played to 75 people in a Raleigh record store last week—be a smash on this hallowed soundstage. Factor in the presence of Brad Rice, one of the most entertaining guitarists on the planet (bassist Jay Brown, keyboardist Danny Eisenberg and drummer Zeke Hutchins round out the band), and I find myself yelling at the screen, "Hey, guy in the Spoon shirt, move something!"
But, in fairness, the first half of Merritt's performance is slow, apparently designed for those who have long counted on Merritt to be their next Emmylou. While a fine showcase for Merritt's songwriting and her versatility as she moves from electric to acoustic guitar and then to Wurlitzer, the first five songs aren't going to quicken many pulses, especially the soft country-rock of "Virginia, No One Can Warn You."
But the mood finally shifts with "Good Hearted Man" and "Neighborhood," the former displaying the soul-spark glow of the Muscle Shoals born and the latter worthy of an early Lone Justice throwdown. After a slow start, Merritt—who occasionally seemed to hide behind her guitar in the Humble Pie early days—is suddenly all over the stage for "I Am Your Tambourine" and "Shadow in the Way." By sheer force of will, she shakes the crowd sort of loose, some of them clapping and dancing, even if some audience members look like they're being held at gunpoint instead of tambourinepoint.
The DVD's 10-song set doubles on the original broadcast, though that's the only extra if you've already got this stored away on videotape. Sure, voiceover commentary ("That Ronnie-Keith lean-in maneuver? Something Brad and I came up with on the flight.") is too much to ask, but even a couple minutes of talking head stuff on the Austin City Limits experience would have been welcome. At least the DVD, like the broadcast, ends with "When I Cross Over," a gorgeous roots-gospel song that was timeless on arrival. It's more than enough to stir anyone, from longtime supporters back home to professional concertgoers in Texas.