James Hunter + Tift Merritt
Wed Jun 4 2008
Photograph: Chris Ramirez
Blender Theater at Gramercy; Wed, June 11
The artists on this sweet double bill don’t make terribly similar-sounding records. James Hunter is a British R&B guy with a profound admiration for Sam Cooke’s work, while Tift Merritt is an alt-country lady from North Carolina who’s probably never heard a Lucinda Williams album she didn’t love. But something bigger than genre unites Hunter and Merritt: the conviction that playing roots music needn’t require checking one’s present-tense enthusiasm at the museum door.
After years spent toiling on the margins of the English trad-soul scene, Hunter turned American heads in 2006 with People Gonna Talk, a terrific collection recorded with producer Liam Watson at London’s Toe Rag Studios (the same joint utilized by the White Stripes on Elephant). Though its songwriting isn’t quite as sharp, Hunter’s new The Hard Way, also produced by Watson, largely duplicates the previous album’s charms, with the singer crooning airily about not wanting to do his lady wrong, over crisp string- and horn-accented arrangements. Onstage, Hunter and his band create an infectious supper-club vibe; dinner may not be included, but dancing definitely will.
Merritt shares a similar artist-producer relationship with George Drakoulias, who helmed both her 2004 breakthrough, Tambourine, and this year’s Another Country. The new one is dryer and folkier than its Stax-y predecessor, which only emphasizes the appealing universality of Merritt’s material. More than once she manages that rarest of roots-music tricks: an obviously labored-over song that sounds effortless. Tonight she’ll perform solo.