Folksy singer/songwriter delivers the goods at the City Winery and Rock NYC’s Iman Lababedi is on the scene
By Iman Lababedi
Iris Dement is a witty, dryly amusing master of ceremonies during her two hour album release party at City Winery Saturday night. This is the opening night of her tour in aid of Sing The Delta, an sixteen years in the making and worth the wait, and the Arkansas born, Los Angeles raised Country folk singer wants to get it just so, Stopping a “Mama Told Her Truth” and reworking the beginning. It had been preceded by a story of how her Mama Flora Mae, who died at the age of 93, had felt like a failure for never following her dream and becoming a musician. Iris, the youngest of 14 children, would make up for it, though it would take her till the age of 25 to get started.
The story was detailed and moving but if ever a woman didn’t need to explain herself, Iris Dement didn’t need to explain herself. Her voice did it on Saturday night, it has a Southern tinge that floats on top and a sad ache in the middle, and it pulls you into her stories and leaves you deep in a dream of sorrow and rebirth, she probably learnt about in the Pentecostal Church Iris belongs in.
Still, her two hour set isn’t perfect. It is jittery and Iris seems uncertain as to how she wants to present these songs that while new to us, she performs the entire October 2012 release Singing The Delta among many songs, they are still songs in her repertoire since at least 2010. The jitteriness is of course the spiciness of the real which doesn’t really hurt. She adds to that some six songs from her catalog and two covers and it is fine but a touch longwinded. The song before the encore was worst of all, a misjudged interminable slow and samey waltz “Out Of The Fire” that had me fidgeting in the tiny space City Winery give you in return for a not cheap seat or meal.
Nitpicking maybe? The first song is a pure country “Making My Way Back Home” could be covered by Loretta Lynn or maybe more to the point Patsy Cline, it has a deep country stir and a joyfulness which, as so happens, seems singed by a deep well of sadness. It is very lovely and it takes Iris a couple of minutes to get her bearings, “I wanna play it again” she laughed.
That first song was followed by “Let The Mystery Be” an early hit and it is easy to mistake the song for a song of theological ambiguity but there is no ambiguity at all to Iris’ faith: it is the voice. The song has no real ambiguity, when it comes to an afterlife the line that sticks out “some say they’re going to a place called Glory and I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact”. But the voice brings you into a faltering aloneness,it is a passionate and subdued instrument and so fully human it brings doubt and a oneness along with it whatever she writes. In NPR, a reviewer claimed “The Day I Learnt Not Pray” was about a faltering faith, but it is actually the precise opposite, It is about a faith that takes a hit and isn’t effected. The singer tells of the day her younger brother fell down stairs and was rushed to hospital. She prayed for his deliverance but the child died leaving Iris to reach the conclusion: “God does what he wants to any way”. the voice is one reason people misread Iris’ feelings about the Pentecostal, the other reason is because she isn’t a Christian songwriter, God is dug deep into the stories but he isn’t the story.
So two songs in and the heavy lifting was over, she had won over the crowd with a lighthearted banter countered with a new and old hit. Very smart, Just perfect. When the band is firing, Iris pumps her piano like she’s playing Gospel and the band surround her and hit the mark. When she is in full ballad mode, out come the slide guitar and pace sometimes slackens and sometimes deepens.
But despite the many high points to follow, it dragged by the half way mark and only came all the way back intermittently. A cover of her step-daughter’s “Faller” (“I’m a faller too, I’ve fallen just like you”) is followed by “Sing The Delta”, which she claimed last year was for her Mother and the Arkansas Delta that is her spiritual home, she now claims is for her step-daughter… though the reasoning is the same. Both of these are superb renditions and “I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight” is a show stopping masterpiece. The encores are enormous fun (“not you” Iris says after “Go On Ahead And Go Home”). And inbetween the set gets a little ponderous. Drop “Out Of The Fire”, “Morning Glory”…. songwise I can’t find another one I’d lose so maybe just speed up the proceedings, If Iris could cut the running time to 105 minutes the set would need very little else.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a singer bring so many shades to her songs through her voice, everything she sings seems to be infused with doubt. It is a strange and beautiful thing. I’ve been really sick with the flu over the weekend and both my editor Helen and Spider Bags drummer rock asked me if it was worth it. Yes, I knew it would be, this is the only thing that actually matters. This beauty and ambiguity in a life of Faith and in something bigger than you.
(Iman Lababedi is editor at large for Rock NYC. For more great reviews and coverage of the music scene in the Big Apple and beyond, check out Rock NYC.)