Saturday Night: Iris DeMent at Cal State Long Beach

Saturday Night: Iris DeMent at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at California State University, Long Beach; September 26, 2009.

Better Than: Plenty!

Iris DeMent is country because in the country is where you still find things living tough and wild; tonight she wore a polka-dot dress and eggshell-blue cowboy boots and when she pumped the pedals on the piano, her heels would dip and scoop like she was bouncing around on top of a horse.

The Carpenter's house lights didn't even waver when she walked on out and so she squinted and grinned and waved them down with a hand–“I'm glad you're here,” she said once it was dark. “I just don't wanna see ya.”

Then a practice trill at each side of the piano and there she went–light anew and fire too from a voice that burns right down to the bones. A “trick voice,” Nick Tosches might have called it–a voice from the earliest days of recorded music when pince-nez'ed RCA engineers
needed singers strong enough to blister wax because the old machines just weren't built sensitive enough to preserve timidity. She'd drop her voice and frog it and pop it and float and curl and crumble and growl and wobble it and then she'd roll her shoulders and lean back into a note that would ring the room like a bell.

She sings like Jimmie Rodgers did, said Merle Haggard back years ago when he asked Iris to come help him record–“They both look lost in the song, like they love it so much that they're living the song,” he told writer Nicholas Dawidoff. It was all in her eyes, he'd said, but she carries so much in her face, too–her songs raced over her like wind over grass; she'd squint and squirrel and shiver to a stop and let the piano tip-toe alone to the finish.

The night before, she'd played McCabe's tiny dark back room and did “My Life”–an especial devastator even in an arsenal of devastators that starts with, “My life… it don't count for nothing…”–and couples were unraveling into one another's laps. Tonight, it was just too public a place to confidently weep but her voice and piano (and guitar for “He Reached Down” and unreleased devastator “The Night I Learned How Not To Pray,” where “God does what God wants to / anyway…”) still bloomed into a special kind of silence found hovering most often in church rafters.

Between both setlists, she seemed to have almost enough new songs for what could be her first album since 2004's Lifeline–like tonight's “Morning Glory,” written when George W. Bush had her “too discouraged to even look at the world,” and “Mama's Truth,” which reveals the source of the DeMent righteousness–but this opening set for Beausoleil ended with an unexpected piano reading of “Let The Mystery Be,” the first song on her first album Infamous Angel, and an encore of “Our Town,” probably her signature even seventeen years since its original release.

Her songs are about life and love and what happens when one or the both run out and on this solo guitar version of “Our Town” she flooded suddenly with hurt and want, lost in the lostness Ernest Tubb spoke about when he said he wanted to sing for the boys on the farm but now there wasn't even a farm anymore. “Hold on to your lover,” went her chorus, “'cause your
heart's bound to die.” At the song's end, she picked out the last dots of melody note by note by note–slower and slower and slower and each one was like a light blinking out. When she finished, she stood alone in the darkness she'd wanted, but just for a moment–people were already standing up to clap.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: Well, I just think she's great, don't I?

Random Detail: Iris DeMent's dad worked at Buena Park's Movieland Wax Museum while she was growing up in Cypress.

“Sweet Is The Melody”
“Living On The Inside”
“Mama's Truth”
“Morning Glory”
“This Love's Gonna Last”
“The Night I Learned How Not To Pray”
“He Reached Down”
“Let The Mystery Be”
“Our Town”

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