There is a moment in every live show when an artist makes a confession or lets us in on a little secret about early-career stage fright, the awkwardness of making conversation while tuning a guitar, or being a bit rusty on an old song. Iris DeMent admitted to a fear of failure regarding poetry which kept her from songwriting until she was in her mid-20s. We can be thankful she overcame this, as DeMent is one of the most spectacularly gifted songwriters working today.
She opened with “Broad Gold” from her upcoming release The Trackless Woods, a collection of 18 poems by the late Russian poet Anna Akhmatova set to music. It was by chance that DeMent opened a borrowed book of Russian poetry to Akhmatova’s “Like A White Stone.” Unfamiliar with the poet, and not much of a poetry buff herself, the more DeMent read, the more she was moved by the poet’s work.
“I didn’t feel like I was alone anymore,” DeMent states in her bio. “I felt as if somebody walked in the room and said to me, ‘Set that to music.’”
The songs on this new album feature a mesmerizing mix of classical and gospel elements that serve as doorways to the poems, while the project itself grew as a symbolic bridge connecting her with the Russian daughter (now 16 and accompanying DeMent on tour) she and husband Greg Brown adopted in 2004.
At the piano for nearly the entire set, DeMent followed with the title cut from her 2012 album, Sing the Delta, a song written while missing her step-daughter Pieta Brown (the show’s opener) who, at the time, was in Alabama mixing an album. It was a fitting segue into the emotional core of DeMent’s performance – and career in general — emphasizing the importance of family, spirituality and a sense of place in her songwriting.
Songs bounced from the bluesy hymnal quality of “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” the spiritual, heartbreaking balladry of “Before the Colors Fade” to the spirited and lively gospel of “Go On Ahead and Go Home,” all from Sing the Delta. DeMent spoke about her time in Kansas City and the influence of the Reverend Sam Mann – as well as Martin Luther King and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh – on her 2010 Lifeline album, from which she sang “He Reached Down,” a retelling of the Good Samaritan parable. (It was Mann who officiated at DeMent’s marriage to Brown, and Pieta Brown is his daughter from a previous marriage.)
“Morning Glory” ended the set on an emotional and achingly beautiful note. She switched to guitar for the two-song encore that brought out Pieta, also on guitar, for “Let the Mystery Be,” a favorite from her debut, Infamous Angel, and a touching cover of Greg Brown’s “My Home in the Sky,” closing the night with the crowd on its feet, tears in their eyes.
Pieta Brown’s opening set featured selections from her six albums, focusing on family and childhood memories traveling with her father, and in particular the film Coal Miner’s Daughter, which inspired “Talkin’ to Loretta in My Mind.”
A poet and pianist since the tender age of eight, Brown’s vocals arrive with a natural ease reminiscent of a young Rickie Lee Jones, shadowed by a haunting, meditative lyricism. The most captivating selections were from her newest release, Paradise Outlaw, recorded at Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) Wisconsin studio, April Base. Of the album, Brown writes on her website, “We recorded live, in just a few days, with everyone in one big room, and what you hear on the recording is the way the music went down as it was recorded.Growing up around a lot of musicians and artists, I have always felt most at home among them. And that’s how I made this recording—surrounded by friends in an underground midwestern goldmine.”
Photo by Tom Garland