Headed Down a Southern Way: Iris DeMent Live in Australia
Lizotte’s, Newcastle NSW, supported by Pieta Brown
I disovered Iris DeMent in a pawn shop. It must have been late 1997 when I picked up a second hand copy of Infamous Angel (1992) and noticed the liner notes by John Prine, whose imprimatur was enough to prompt a $5 investment. The timing was good, because I was familiar with Dement’s music when she first visited Australia in the autumn of 1998. Her afternoon set at the Byron Bay Bluesfest remains one of the most memorable of the hundreds I have seen there. I’ve been a besotted fan ever since.
Iris DeMent didn’t return to Australia until 2013, following the release of the stunning Sing the Delta (winner of ND’s Readers’ Poll for that year). It was the most pleasant of surprises, then, to discover she was touring here again, albeit for a handful of dates. More pleasant still that she was being supported by Pieta Brown.
Although it was just 18 months since the last visit, and there was no new album release, I was real excited about this show. So, too, it seems was venue owner Brian Lizotte, who runs a string of entertainment restaurants. The Newcastle venue – a converted 100-year-old suburban theatre – is the pick of them. The theatre and foyer have a plush, old-fashioned ambience, with period lampshades and velvet lounge chairs adorning the stage. It’s all reds and oranges, dimly lit.
Although Lizotte has presented many top line US acts – including Keb’ Mo’, Martha Wainwright, Eric Bibb, and both the Earles – he was clearly thrilled to be hosting Iris DeMent, describing DeMent and Pieta Brown as “music royalty”.
The love was reciprocated. Both Brown and Iris DeMent waxed lyrical about the room, and the evening had a feel-good vibe from beginning to end.
The economics of touring Australia mean many Americana acts tour without a band, and so it was. Just two women taking the stage, Pieta strumming her guitar and Iris mostly at the piano.
Pieta Brown, who toured last year as half of the Love Over Gold duet (with Australia’s Lucy Thorne), opened with a pleasant, low key set, exuding warmth and humour. The high point for me was “Do You Know?” the opening track from Paradise Outlaw, an album I’ve had on high rotation for months. I’m a devotee of Brown’s singing, but her gossamer voice requires sympathetic sound and careful mike technique. If she drifted off mike at all, the vocals got too airy – at least from where I was, up in the circle.
Iris Dement occupies a special place in country music. She is regarded by many (I’m raising my hand) as one of the truly great singers, and despite a sparse catalogue – just four albums of original music in more than 20 years – a magnificent song writer.
Between trips to the creative well, it seems Iris spent much of her downtime playing piano, and developing her style. Earlier in her career, she played more guitar. Now, she opts for piano-based songs almost exclusively, playing in a percussive, two-handed style. It gives her music an even more old-timey feel, evoking church, her native Arkansas, and another century. The one before the last one.
Iris DeMent’s music is a rich pudding. It puts me in mind of the Carter Family, Stephen Foster, Rosetta Tharpe. Kitty Wells, and so much more. But DeMent transcends all her influences. She may be old timey, but she’s not retro. She does her own thing, born out of tradition and guided by intuition rather than fashion.
DeMent says she is compelled to write and to sing. Indeed, the first time I saw her, she seemed lost in reverie; reminded by the applause at the end of each song that there were others present, and unsure of what to do with their adulation.
These days, Iris Dement is more assured, unafraid of the spotlight, peppering her show with good humoured asides. Still, you get the feeling she hears a different drummer. DeMent’s continuing themes are family, God and loss – often in the same same song. Her love songs, in the usual sense, are few.
She began this performance with “Surely I Will, Lord”, a gospel tune from her childhood, and perfect for the velvety yesteryear of Lizottes. This was followed by “Sweet is the Melody”, a gem from My Life (1994), and the title song from Sing the Delta. Not surprisingly, fully half the set came from that album.
Two songs came from from the upcoming The Trackless Woods, a project DeMent has been working on for four years, putting tunes to the words of Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. On the basis of this sample, there is much to look forward to in the forthcoming CD.
After a dozen songs at the piano, Iris picked up her guitar for the heartbreaking “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”, before bringing out Pieta Brown for the crowd favourite, “Our Town”. Even better, they then swapped verses on Greg Brown’s (Iris’s husband, Pieta’s dad) “My Home in the Sky”.
Iris went back to the piano for the first encore, the title track from My Life, to another rousing response. A great night was bookended by “There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven”, an original from Sing the Delta with real gospel fervour.
I left with a big smile on my face, but my third Iris DeMent show came and went too quickly. Can’t wait for the fourth.
Postscript: The Factory, Marrickville (Sydney), supported by Pieta Brown and Jen Mize, 29th May 2015
The last night of Iris DeMent’s brief Australian run was at Sydney’s Factory Theatre, also the venue for her 2013 Sydney show. The Factory is in an inner-suburban industrial area, under the flight path to Sydney Airport. It’s never been my favourite place, and my enthusiasm was waning on the afternoon of the show. It was a Friday night at the end of a long week.
Long story short – it was simply magnificent, even better than Newcastle.
They’ve done work on the look and sound at The Factory, and it has paid off handsomely. The sound was first class.
Jen Mize, a Las Vegan now living in southern Queensland with her Australian husband, played a brief warm-up set to a small but supportive audience, prior to the advertised starting time. She sounded great, and my tiredness faded.
The house was near full by the time Pieta Brown hit the stage and she was a revelation. This was the fourth time I has seen Pieta live, and the first with sound that truly did her justice. There are few more joyful noises than the rich, warm tones of an acoustic guitar though a good PA, with everything in balance. Add Pieta Brown’s gorgeous, girlish voice and – well, my Friday blues are forgotten.
By the end of Pieta’s set, I felt I’d already had a night out.
And then there was Iris.
Although the set-list was largely the same as Newcastle, it all felt shiny new. The sound was that good. Every word of every song could be understood, and this breathed life into the unfamiliar material, particularly the pieces based on the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. The two shimmering songs performed at each of the gigs on this tour -‘All is Lost’ and ‘ This You Call Work’ – illustrate what drew Iris DeMent to the work of Akhmatova. If the notion of Dement’s singular southern voice combined with Russian poetry seems an odd mix, wait for the album. It just works.
I’ve never heard Iris DeMent sound better. At previous shows, the PA has accentuated her high register. Tonight, the mid-range of the PA gave her voice more depth, and she sounded as she does on her recordings. (Hats off to Chad, the sound guy.)
Like Pieta Brown, Iris was relaxed and clearly enjoying the room and the generous audience, who she thanked for “living in the moment” and leaving their iPhones in their pockets.
Highlights included Lefty Frizzell’s ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’ and a new song based on Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’. There was no ‘Our Town’ – replaced in the encore by ‘Let The Mystery be’ – and, amazingly, nobody called out for it. This may have been the most polite and good-natured crowd I’ve ever been part of. The evening (and the tour) ended perfectly, with a return to Anna Akhmatova – a brief piece called ‘The Last Toast’.
I realised during this show that Iris Dement sounds a little like the late Kate McGarrigle, another of my favorites. But it’s not her sound, as such, that draws me to Iris’s singing. The thing is, she paints every corner of every song with something from down deep in her heart. Although she doesn’t sound like either, she gives me the same feeling as greats such as George Jones and Billie Holiday.
This was a Friday night in Sydney that will live long in the memory. Even the dull roar of 737s couldn’t break the spell.