CONCERT REVIEW

In return to KC, Iris DeMent sings songs of faith, love and home

Updated: 2013-11-27T01:27:40Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

Two songs into her show Saturday night at Knuckleheads, Iris DeMent put down her guitar, took a seat at the piano, leaned into the microphone and deadpanned, as if surprised by the turnout, “What are you all doing here?”

She was speaking to the 250-plus fans who filled every seat in the room and had been giving her their rapt attentions for her first two songs, “The Way I Should,” the title track from her third album, then “Let the Mystery Be,” the opening track from her debut, “Infamous Angel.”

Her third song, “Makin’ My Way Back Home,” was one from her latest album, “Sing the Delta,” and it suited the evening. Throughout the 1990s, DeMent made Kansas City her full-time home. Thus, the warm greeting from a crowd that included family and friends.

DeMent and her solid four-piece band gave the audience more than 100 minutes of songs, many of them from “Delta,” her first album of original material since 1996’s “The Way I Should.” “Delta” is a meditative collection of laments, ballads and hymns about faith, mortality, love and loss. DeMent would perform eight of its 12 songs, including “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” an ode to her mother, a Pentecostalist who used her faith to get through hard times; the title track; and “Mornin’ Glory,” a tribute to beauty in nature.

DeMent delivered several covers. Two were among the show’s many highlights. The first was the very countrified “Walkin’ Daddy,” written by her husband, Greg Brown. Another was “Faller,” written by Brown’s daughter, Pieta Brown. DeMent also covered Jesse Winchester’s “That’s What Makes You Strong” and Merle Haggard’s “Big City.”

They all meshed nicely with her own material, much of which was given heavy country accents, thanks to Jon Graboff’s mandolin and pedal steel and the high, lonesome twang in DeMent’s voice. She turns 52 in January, yet her voice has lost little of its register. She still sounds of the hills of her native Arkansas.

That voice suited her other cover of the night, a version of “Don’t Leave the Leavin’ Up to Me.” (Before she sang that, she cited the version by Leona Williams, one of Haggard’s ex-wives.)

DeMent sang “He Reached Down,” a song from “Lifeline,” a collection of gospel songs she released in 2004. And she sang one called “White Stone,” which was inspired by a work by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. From a big crowd that showed DeMent much respect and love, there were a few calls for “Wasteland of the Free,” a political anthem from “The Way I Should,” but she apparently wasn’t in the mood for politics.

Instead, she gave them more from “Delta,” including “Go On Ahead and Go Home” and then “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” a song about finding redemption and salvation here on Earth. “I’ve been saved by the love of the people livin’ right here,” she sang. It feels safe to assume that the feeling in the room was mutual.

Set list

The Way I Should; Let the Mystery Be; Makin’ My Way Back Home; Before the Colors Fade; Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth; Sing the Delta; Like a White Stone; Walkin’ Daddy (Greg Brown cover); Faller (Pieta Brown cover); The Night I Learned How Not to Pray; Don’t Leave the Leaving Up to Me; He Reached Down; Mornin’ Glory; That’s What Makes You Strong (Jesse Winchester cover); The Kingdom Has Already Come; Out of the Fire; Go On Ahead and Go Home. Encore: Big City (Merle Haggard cover); There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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