“I’ve got nothing else to do,” remarked Iris DeMent as she returned for an encore last night at First Presbyterian Church. “You’re the only friends I have in Lexington.”
Admittedly, the patrons at this solo concert (a benefit for Habitat for Humanity) became fast friends with DeMent and her richly literate but staunchly traditional country-folk songs. But it was a sheepish, if not altogether telling remark.
In performance, DeMent let loose with a voice that’s half dust bowl wail and half country croon. It’s big, emotive and arresting. Out of the spotlight and between songs, however, she spoke in often self deprecating terms in a tone that registered barely above a mumble. And in a few rare instances last night, those two personas collided.
Case in point: Morning Glory, one of several new tunes pulled from recording sessions conducted over the winter with Richard Bennett and Bo Ramsey producing. (DeMent said a resulting album, her first in eight years, is due out in September.) Like much of the new material, it was bright and confident, fitting DeMent’s buoyant vocals around parlor-style piano rolls so steeped in Americana tradition that they could pass for Randy Newman melodies.
But the singer seemed almost apologetic after the tune concluded. “We recorded that with a horn section. Man, was I missing that tonight. But you can only do what you can do.”
For the run of the 1 ¾ hour performance, DeMent made do very well, digging into only a select number of early favorites (the show opening Sweet is the Melody, the set closing heartbreaker Our Town), the occasional cover (a hymn like reading of Lefty Frizzell’s That’s the Way Love Goes) and even a few comparatively recent originals that mimicked the construction and content of traditional spirituals (He Reached Down).
During the more powerful vocal moments, DeMent matched the authority of any number of country classicists. In quieter, more plaintive sections, her singing strongly recalled Emmylou Harris. The only thing working against DeMent was the hall itself. The church provided wonderful intimacy and atmospherics, but also an unavoidable echo that robbed some of the performance of its vocal clarity.
Overall, that’s a minor gripe. But given the unspoiled and immensely reflective detail of DeMent’s songs, especially the newer ones, missing even a few words seemed a crime.