As far as hometown shows go, native Melody Gardot could have been playing Timbuktu, Milan, or Sheboygan when she hit the Merriam Theater on Friday night. Ever since the former Center City resident-chanteuse became something of a long-distance lodger, she has touched base in Paris, Brazil, and Los Angeles - literally, figuratively - to represent her smoky brand of jazz-blues, CinemaScopic instrumentation, and lyrics tinged with lonely teardrops and rapturous universality.
"I missed you, Philly," a moist-eyed Gardot said at her show's halfway point. The subtly quivering baritone singer-songwriter is known for cool emotionalism (e.g., the Cali-jazz breeziness of "Baby, I'm a Fool" and the swaggering chill of "Same to You" with its smoldering catch, "What you gonna get for all you got when you treat the one you love like they are not"). That weeping immediately cut Gardot and her devoted audience to the quick, especially because she followed with "Our Love Is Easy," a swaying acoustic guitar-filled ballad with a gorgeous horn line and such tender lyrics as "Physically speaking, we were made to last/Examine all the pieces of our recent past."
It's important to mention the sophistication of the reeds and brass and the dignified sweep of her strings above, because Gardot and her backing septet didn't always keep things so polite. The lengthy slip-sliding reverie of "It Gonna Come," the wobbly call-and-response soul of "Who Will Comfort Me," and the rock-out gospel reverie of "Preacherman" were rude and funky, worthy of a jiving, sweaty jam at the Apollo. After discussing freedom and academics, and singing a snippet of "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," Gardot and Co. leaped into a wiry, syncopated "March for Mingus" that found her madly rolling her piano's keys while saxophonist Irwin Hall pulled a Rahsaan Roland Kirk by playing two reeds simultaneously.