We'd seen Iris Dement back in January and when we heard she was coming to a hall we'd never been to in New Hampshire we were not immediately psyched. But then I heard her new record. If you aren't already familiar with her new record, please stop reading this and GET familiar with it ... it's at least the record of the year and possibly of a much wider span than that. We scooped up tickets to the Tupelo Music Hall pronto!
Struggled through the North-bound traffic on 93 after work on Thursday 10/8 and met our friend in a Londonderry pizza joint where we gushed about the concert we were about to see and had some ok slices. The Tupelo Music Hall allows you to bring beer (for a charge) and so we took our seats about mid-room and had a couple before the show. It's a nice looking room but they crowd the people together so much we had very little hip room or leg room. They also have an under-powered PA that did its best to keep Iris's voice down; they need another stack of speakers on each side at least and enough amps to kick them up when the singer growls or soars the way an artist like Iris can.
Anyway, she came on and opened with one of her new songs, Before the Colors Fade, and then followed with the song-she-has-to-do-whenever-she-plays, Let the Mystery Be. She was playing their beautiful (both visually and auditorially) wood-grain grand piano and trying out her voice and that damn PA. Then she got to it and played the rest of her new album, switching to guitar for a few songs in the middle of the set and then returning to the keys. She ended up leaving off only two tracks from the record (There's a Whole Lotta Heaven and Out Of the Fire), and encored on guitar with another of her have-to-play-it songs, Our Town, and then closed the evening with the Carter's Keep On the Sunny Side, which she dedicated to "those who's guy did *not* win the other day" (a bit over half of the audience hooted and hollered at that).
OK, there's the facts and the subjective slant on it is that ... OMG it was great! Again, if you aren't in love with her new record already then you have to listen to it. When we saw her in January she played a couple of the songs from it, Before the Colors Fade and Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth, I believe. But they sounded raw and almost like throw-aways back in the winter, as if they were hooks she was trying out and might work. She released the record at least six weeks ago and so must have recorded the songs at least six months ago, and they were transformed on the disc and when we heard them. Iris must have been hit by a genius stick sometime in the early Spring, that's the only thing possible!
Not only are the songs incredibly moving lyrically (when she played the showstopper, The Night I Learned How Not To Pray on guitar, the lady next to me almost hyperventilated she was so affected by it), Iris showed consummate mastery of her voice. She has a style of mixing tremolo, notes she slides off of and flats, notes she soars up to, and notes she strikes precisely like a hammer, all in the same few measures. A number of the songs have "la-la-la," almost yodeling passages, and Iris hits them perfectly on the record, probably after a few takes. When she wasn't perfect on them live, she rolled her eyes up and missed the next note too ... she needs to give herself a break and drive through these passages if she wants to be a great live performer, but you can tell she knows that and it's part of what makes her so charming.
We would have loved to hear her sing all night, but she was done after Our Town, on which she played a signature guitar part, just a simple, constant strum like an old-time musician would do, though her left hand betrayed her mastery of the spell she was creating. We sang along with Sunny Side and then crawled out towards the exit. Luckily we hung behind a bit and overheard someone saying that she was signing the new album in the back ... Iris does not promote herself well.
We made out way back there, waited in line, and then had a few words with her while she signed our CDs. I asked her if she'd really written all those songs recently, as she'd hinted on stage, and she said that no, they had mostly been batting around in her head for a long, long time. I told her that we'd seen her back in January but hesitated to ask the question I was really wondering about, for fear of being rude. The question was what the heck happened so that she knew that these songs that she had kept suppressed for so long and/or that only existed in raw form were suddenly ready to record? How did she know that it was time to get some great musicians together (Bo Ramsey, Dave Jacques, Al Perkins, et al.) and lay down those incredible tracks? Oh well, guess I just have to let the mystery be.