Iris DeMent in St. Louis: Easy's Getting Harder
I first saw Iris DeMent in the late 1990s at a small shotgun bar (long and narrow) in St. Louis. It was SRO, and fresh off her first two albums, she was electric.
I just saw her again last Friday night at the Sheldon Concert Hall also in St. Louis. Electric? Not so much. Solid and Strong? Yes. Surprising? Yes... especially the way she finished the show.
The Sheldon is a 100 year old music hall with incredible sound. With only 800 seats, it's meant for small, acoustic shows. With stained glass windows and ancient wooden seats, it can almost feel like church -- something DeMent mentioned. I've seen many shows there, most notably Alison Krauss and the Waifs.
The musicians who do best there understand that it's all about dynamics, not volume. DeMent obviously hadn't played there before and had a full band...including drums, bass, electric guitar and pedal-steel.
Whether it was the mix or her own confidence -- she wore high heels ("the highest I've worn in 20 years") and seemed uncomfortable at times playing guitar -- her beautiful voice was sometimes hard to hear. At times it seemed drowned out by a band that's probably used to playing over outdoor festival crowds and clinking bar glasses. And being such a small and historic hall, the sound guy had to sit off to the side of the stage, so it's not clear he could really tell how it sounded out front.
The church-like atmosphere, the reverent crowd -- it was completely silent between songs -- the high heels, the sound mix... could have thrown DeMent off her game. But she powered through nearly two hours of music, mostly songs from her recent album, Sing the Delta. These are mostly piano songs and that's where DeMent seemed most comfortable, playing piano with the band instead of out front with the guitar.
DeMent peppered the evening with wry, witty comments and stories, befitting a Missouri girl in front of a Missouri crowd. She was self-deprecating, too, with a stage manner endearing and authentic.
In addition to her newer songs, she did some great covers... songs by Jesse Winchester, "one of Merle Haggard's ex-wives" and Pieta Brown, the daughter of her husband & singer-songwriter Greg Brown. For some reason it was on these songs that her voice sounded strongest, as if she were somewhat shy about her own.
To some of the crowd's disappointment, DeMent played few of her old songs, although "Sweet is the Melody" shone with a new waltz-like piano treatment.
On one of Jimmy Buffett's live albums, he talks to the crowd about people who come to his concerts to hear that "one song" that they know, "Margaritaville" in his case. Entering the Sheldon, I overheard a fan trying to tell her friend about DeMent and a song the friend might recognize, the signature "Our Town." When the fan said the song played over the last scenes and credits of the TV series, "Northern Exposure," the friend nodded knowingly.
Now for the surprise. For the show's encore, DeMent came out with a guitar and started strumming the opening chords of "Our Town." Midway through the second verse, she started giggling and stopped playing. She apologized and laughed saying, "I don't know why I just broke into the giggles. It's a serious song!" The crowd cheered encouragingly and she started the song again. And then she stopped, saying "I'll come back next year and play that!"
With that she went back to the piano and started playing a strong and uplifting finale. It's clear that DeMent is the kind of artist who plays what she likes and doesn't necessarily pander to an audience. Even with her angelic, vibrato voice, her song's themes can be challenging... a child's death, a simple flower, unabashed sentiment for her mother... yet I'd go anywhere to sit for two hours to listen. And the Sheldon is my favorite place to hear live music.
As if to say goodbye, her last song was "Go On Ahead and Go Home" from Sing the Delta.
"Our Town" or not, I did not want to leave. I guess I'll just have to wait until next year.