Justin Townes Earle/Tift Merritt @ Pollak Theatre

LONG BRANCH, NJ—Making her way across the softly lit stage at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre, Tift Merritt’s small, fragile frame was barely noticed until she picked up a well-worn acoustic guitar that made Willie Nelson’s trademark “Trigger” look practically new.

Launching into a heartfelt version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” the folk chestnut’s sad and lonely lyrics perfectly suited Merritt’s current around-the-world-on-my-own tour in support of her fifth album, the aptly titled Traveling Alone on Yep Roc.

Shyly thanking the audibly appreciative crowd after a stirring rendition of the similarly themed title-track and the wistful longing of “Spring,” Merritt moved to piano and let herself disappear into two intense, vulnerable, from-the-heart semi-ballads highlighted by the neo-classical “Small Talk Relations.”

Reflecting on a never-ending tour schedule, home, the weather*, traveling, her difficulty in “finding a place” for her music, and the fickleness of past record labels, Merritt laughed, walked to the lip of the stage and wryly quipped, “Well, here’s one some label folks thought might be a hit,” as she tore into the country-flavored “Good Hearted Man” and filled the room without benefit of microphone or amplification, much to the delight of the audience.

Rounding out her set with aching versions of “Still Not Home” and “Sweet Spot,” Merritt left the stage to enthusiastic applause and, rather than relax, headed for the lobby during the set break to sign autographs and meet and take pictures with her new fans.

The tall, gangly, unassuming, rail-thin physical presence of Justin Townes Earle doesn’t begin to hint at the huge Hank-meets-Merle-meets-Johnny Paycheck depth and command of his voice or songwriting. A riveting figure on stage, Earle treated fans to two solo acoustic tunes before his crack three-piece joined him for a Stax-soulful “Look The Other Way” and the bluesy “Maria,” both from his genre-hopping fourth Bloodshot CD, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now.

After ripping through four tracks from his last release, Harlem River Blues, sandwiched around a Jerry Lee Lewis-like romp through “Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin,’” which led to the swampy stomp of “Ain’t Waitin’” and the gorgeously sad “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” Earle gave the band a break, chatted briefly with the crowd as he tuned his guitar, and then floored them with two powerful acoustic tunes that spoke in profound revelations backed by some amazingly fine fingerpicking.

Refreshed and ready for more, the group (including Calexico’s Paul Niehaus on pedal steel, guitar and backing vocals) traveled back to “Christchurch Woman” and “Midnight At The Movies” before Earle’s bigger-than-life baritone returned them to the new disc via the Springsteen-esque title-track and the chugging, Chuck Berry-hued “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea.”

Closing out a brilliant night of raw, honest, roots-based music with sublime shots at “Black Eyed Suzy,” “Rogers Park” and “Slippin’ And Slidin,’” prolonged cheers from the audience were rewarded with an encore that saw Earle return for three acoustic gems including an irony-drenched version of “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out,” followed by one last gallop through a final, grin-inducing rave up with the band.


*This was a specially scheduled performance by both artists to make up for a November 4 show canceled by Superstorm Sandy.


Upcoming shows at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre include John Hammond on April 5, Southside Johnny & The Poor Fools on April 13, Roger McGuinn on April 19, and Ani DiFranco on Nov. 8.