Iris DeMent
First Congregational Church, Berkeley
Monday, Jan. 19

In an interview last year promoting his Central Park concert, Garth Brooks said that the best country music should be a jarring, discomforting thing: Its greatest power is in the lines that make you sit up and say, "Damn." By that standard, Iris DeMent is the damndest thing to happen to country music in years. Thirty-six years old, raised across the country as the youngest of 14 children, and blessed with a yearning voice hellbent on making grown men cry, her songwriting transforms nearly everything -- sex, friendship, politics, home, God -- into immediate questions of faith. Which made the altar of the First Congregational Church in Berkeley the perfect venue for her craft: Accompanying herself on only acoustic guitar and piano, she spent two hours wrestling angels in song. Though her music is occasionally weakened with painfully sentimental cliches, DeMent was busy asking harder questions; she's comfortable excavating the precise spot where an earnest soul collides with messy reality.

DeMent's chosen themes are nothing new to country music. Her three albums since 1992 are steeped in traditional, almost antique country, with strong influences from folk and gospel, built on melodies strummed simply, without the sequined shine and guitar flash that plague much of today's "new country." Ignored by the country music establishment, she first recorded for the folkie label Philo, and now has her records released through Warner Bros. proper rather than its country arm, Warner Nashville. But Merle Haggard, so the story goes, heard DeMent cover his song "Big City" and immediately asked to work with her. It's easy to hear why. The conservatism of her musical approach displays a deep and rare adoration of country's past: Vocally, she comes on like a Kitty Wells with an ax to grind. Her sole cover at the First Congregational Church, F.W. McGee's 1941 gospel tune "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" -- from 1992's Infamous Angel -- dovetailed with her originals perfectly.

Lyrically, she marries simplicity with words about more contemporary issues. On 1996's The Way I Should DeMent sticks it to yuppies who ignore their children ("Quality Time") and describes the turmoil a molested child suffers ("Letter to Mom"). "Wasteland of the Free," an acid-tongued catalog of social protests, is in a way the flip side of Haggard's blindly patriotic "The Fightin' Side of Me": The "squirrelly guy who claims he just don't believe in fighting" Haggard lambastes is "pretty damn American" to DeMent. She also skewers corrupt politicians and preachers, and while the sentiments aren't unique, her straightforward presentation gives them added weight. However, DeMent's never heavy-handed with her politics; singing "Wasteland" onstage, she avoided emphasizing certain lines to convince the listener of anything. The words merely presented themselves, with DeMent acting as medium. Though she introduced the number by saying people might disagree with it, DeMent wasn't picking sides for anyone; she's in the business of reporting, not sermonizing.

In Nashville, a buck and that kind of integrity still only gets you a cup of coffee. Brooks hoots and swaggers in Central Park on national television; DeMent has to settle for baring her soul in a church. Having placed her faith in God and not dogma, DeMent is left in an obviously conflicted position. Turning around for a moment to look at the cross hanging behind her -- the same way a singer turns to bandmates and asks, "Ready?" -- she sang "Let the Mystery Be," an airy tune pondering the afterlife. Washing her hands of any particular theology, she sang, "Everybody's worryin' about where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done ... I think I'll just let the mystery be." A capable guitarist but more adept and evocative on piano, DeMent created majestic, touching moments during "Keep Me God," the heartsick "Walking Home," and "This Kind of Happy," a rare unabashed love song, co-written with Haggard.

But with DeMent, the directness is also sabotaged at times by saccharine sentiment. The major failing of her first two records, Angel and 1994's My Life, is her tendency to bathe her tunes in a glaze of romanticized meditations on home and hearth. Songs like "Mama's Opry," "These Hills," and "Childhood Memories" are probably personally meaningful, but they don't translate into universals. "Childhood Memories" is most cringe-worthy: "You let me fly your kite but then I dropped the string/ I thought my life was over, but Mama rescued me." Just like the rest of her songs, such personal explorations obviously mean the world to DeMent. Even though she sang them beautifully last week, they sounded amateurish and forced. Without the clutter of their recorded versions in the way, her slower, rawer renditions of "Easy's Getting Harder Every Day" and "No Time to Cry" got over despite similar flaws.

Throughout the concert, DeMent resisted any form of showmanship, just a few offhanded quips, some polite thank-yous. She's distant onstage, which can easily be mistaken for coldness or disinterest. But in truth, it reflects her respect for the songs, which make their searching, soaring points without DeMent's personality mucking about and diluting their meaning. In other words, she's honest. In a contemporary Nashville used to style and surfaces, that's pretty damn respectable.

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