Friday was family night at the Folly Theater. The husband-and-wife folk music tandem of Greg Brown and Iris DeMent performed a benefit concert on behalf of St. Mark Union Church.
Brown’s mother was among the approximately 850 people in the reverent audience who heard her son plaintively sing about his love for his grandfather on “Cheapest Kind.” In his introduction to DeMent, the Rev. Sam Mann insisted that he was her cousin. DeMent’s opening song was about her father. Her second selection was about her mother.
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A solo acoustic performance by Brown was followed by a solo set from DeMent. Both interspersed their appearances with tender declarations of their affection for their spouse. A former resident of Kansas City, DeMent recalled paying dues at open mic nights at area venues. She’s never been entirely comfortable in the spotlight, and even almost 20 years after the release of her debut album and countless accolades, including a Grammy nomination, she remained a jittery performer as she accompanied herself on piano and guitar.
“This may look like a relaxing job,” she sighed. “But trust me, it ain’t.”
Aside from a mournful rendition of DeMent’s best-known song, the bleak “Our Town,” the majority of the material featured in her 80-minute set was unfamiliar to most of the audience.
Yet DeMent’s disarmingly guileless nature and amusing chatter helped make her new music immediately gratifying. She quipped about adjusting to her home with Brown in rural Iowa — “It’s really lonesome and creepy” — and her mother’s response to a question on a medical checklist asking if she’d ever lost any organs — “Nope, but I gave away a good piano once.”
While she’s a fine songwriter, it’s DeMent’s singing that makes her exceptional. Her sepia-toned voice conjures a sweeping American panorama that includes images of Civil War battlefields, weary sharecroppers, beleaguered coal miners and Depression-era dust storms.
DeMent playfully suggested that her husband’s soulful croak sounds as “if dirt could sing.” Brown may lack DeMent’s enchanting voice, but his low rumble made the original compositions in his 50-minute set seem like ancient incantations. Renditions of the forlorn “Hillbilly Girl” and the wise “Tenderhearted Child” indicated that Brown is a worthy heir to folk and blues masters like Dave Van Ronk and Charlie Patton.
The earthy evening concluded with three unpolished but charming duets. The delightful encore revealed a profound simplicity and limitless joy that may only be attainable within a family.