The Garage at Knuckleheads felt more like a chapel or a church Friday night.
For nearly two hours, before a crowd of more than 400, Iris DeMent and her three-piece band filled the venue with ballads and hymns, many of them gospel songs with lyrics that question faith and contemplate the struggles of the soul.
The night was part literary seminar, too. DeMent, a former Kansas Citian, is touring on “The Trackless Woods,” a collection of 18 songs that apply music to the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Throughout the show, DeMent delivered biographical bits of the brave and grueling life of a woman who suffered various tragedies and cruelties at the hands of the Stalinists.
After an opening set by Pieta Brown, daughter of her husband, songwriter Greg Brown, DeMent took a seat at the piano and opened with “The Kingdom Has Already Come,” a gospel tune with lyrics that express doubt in the power of prayer: “I stopped in the church to pray / It was the middle of the day / And I don’t even know if I believe in God / But I laid my soul on the table.”
“Kingdom” is from “Sing the Delta,” released in 2012. It was DeMent’s fifth studio album and her first collection of original material in 16 years. It chronicles her upbringing in rural Arkansas, where she was raised by Pentecostal parents.
She would sing half the album, including “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” an account of the accidental death of her little brother, which fractured her faith: “That was the night I learned how not to pray / ’Cause God does what he wants to anyway.”
After “Livin’ on the Inside,” a “Delta” track about turmoil in the soul (“I’ve been looking for answers / That don’t seem to wanna be had”), she moved to material from “The Trackless Woods.” She started with “Like a White Stone,” a passionate love poem: “Can’t contain myself when we’re skin on skin / Don’t you dare to stop what you’re doing to me.”
Because they were written as poems and because they were translated to English from Russian, the “Trackless” songs lack the usual meter and rhyme of song lyrics. It’s a tribute to DeMent that she was able to transform them into gospel and folk songs, each made more appealing by her expressive voice, her piano playing and the deft accompaniment from her band, including several transcendent forays from a pedal steel guitar.
She followed that with “And This You Call Work,” then “Listening to Singing,” in which a woman’s voice is described as “a diamond-shine, comes to bathe and bless / Things are draped in a silvery light / It rustles its suggestive dress / Woven of fantasy, silken and bright.”
After “Singing,” DeMent provided some details of Akhmatova’s life: She survived two world wars and Stalinist tyranny. Because she was so revered, DeMent said, Stalin left her alone but executed one husband and exiled another, and other family members, to a gulag. Yet she continued to write.
DeMent and her band would perform three more “Trackless” songs, including the stern, cold “Reject the Burden”: “Reject the burden of all earthly solace / And ask of God nothing, nothing at all.”
She then strapped on a guitar and and covered “Walkin’ Daddy,” a song her husband wrote. Brown was not present, but other family members were, including the teenage daughter they adopted from Siberia, and she introduced them.
After “Daddy,” she delivered a robust version of one of her own songs, “Let the Mystery Be,” from her breakout “Infamous Angel” album. “Mystery” addresses faith and the afterlife: “Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory / And I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact … / I believe in love and I live my life accordingly / But I choose to let the mystery be.”
After two more “Trackless” songs — “Songs About Songs” and “Last Toast” — she closed with two of her own. The first was “Morning Glory,” an ode about smelling the roses and appreciating the beauty around us.
Then she took an impromptu request from the fans up front, ending the show with “Our Town,” a farewell to the town that raised her, a town on the wane. It’s sentimental but it preaches, too, about the impermanence of life: “And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts / Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye / But hold on to your lover / ’Cause your heart’s bound to die.”
And with that candid sermon, church was over.
The Kingdom Has Already Come; Makin’ My Way Back Home; Sing the Delta; Livin’ on the Inside; Like a White Stone; And This You Call Work; Listening to Singing; All Is Sold; Not With Deserters; Reject The Burden; Walking Daddy; Let the Mystery Be; The Night I Learned How Not to Pray; Go on Ahead and Go Home; Song About Songs; Last Toast; Mornin’ Glory; Our Town.