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Iris DeMent, Kessler Theater, Saturday, February 15th, 2014, Reviewed

going right for your vital organs

going right for your vital organs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You have to steel yourself a bit for an Iris DeMent gig. There will be no choreographed dancing or sock puppet skits. Despite some quirky and droll between song patter, musically she’s going to go right for your vital organs – kicking you in the gut and slapping your heart around. This is a woman that has never been in a tickle fight.

The power of Iris DeMent is the power of religion. Everything she plays is filtered through the lens of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Every piano note would fit firmly in a Sunday morning service. In her music, she is either praising God (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “He Reached Down”), upset with God (“The Night I Learned Not to rlay”), or celebrating her ambivalence about Christian teachings (“Let The Mystery Be”). There’s no small ball in DeMent. She doesn’t tiptoe around serious themes, she dives in full bore.

Originally scheduled to be a full band performance, DeMent played solo due to logistical issues with her band. With much of her music being in a similar tempo, a full band would have given the music greater definition/more sonic interest. DeMent even slowed the tempo of “Sweet is the Melody,” losing some of the winning lilt of the tune. Still, it’s her powerful (and strange) voice and her lyrics that define her music. Often the songs are about longing and loss. Longing for meaningful experiences (“Livin’ on the Inside”) or for her geographic past (“Sing the Delta”) or mourning the loss of her mother (“Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth”) or the loss of identity (“Our Town”).

The setlist relied heavily on her excellent 2012 album Sing the Delta, an album that explored her feelings about her family’s Arkansas roots, which also happen to be my roots as well. As much as I love the title track from Sing the Delta, it was another title track that reduced me to tears. Her 1993 song “My Life,” which defines a worthwhile life as one that gives joy and comfort to others, is a work of astonishing power. It’s another instance of DeMent bypassing the need of a higher power to validate her existence.

There is a timeless element to DeMent, given her universal themes and the bedrock simplicity of her musical accompaniment. Beyond those aspects, it is her bravery – her emotional honesty and intelligence and passion – that makes DeMent a major artist. She is genuine and moving and a truly gifted songwriter. Long may she drawl.

Grade – B+

Setlist:

Makin’ My Way Back Home

Sweet is the Melody

Mornin’ Glory

Livin’ on the Inside

Sing the Delta

When My Mornin’ Comes Around

The Night I Learned How Not to Pray

Our Town

My Life

Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

He Reached Down

Go Ahead and Go Home

The Kingdom Has Already Come

Like A White Stone

Let the Mystery Be

 

Encore:

There’s A Whole Lot of Heaven

Keep on the Sunny Side

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