Zoilus by Carl Wilson

The Reopening of Iris
(Pop Montreal Postscript)

October 13th, 2009

Catching up with life in Toronto last week, I didn’t get the chance to write about the final show I saw at Pop Montreal, after the deadline for my Sunday wrapup - Iris DeMent at little jazz-bar boîte L’Astral on Ste-Catherine, which just opened this summer. Now, Arkansas-born country singer DeMent has been one of my favourite singers and songwriters since 1994, when she released her stunning second album, My Life, full of piercingly poignant chronicles of family, love, music, faiths found and lost, the whole catastrophe.

She doesn’t play often, at least north of the border (I think she said that she’d never been to Montreal before) - I hadn’t seen her since the 2000 Blue Rodeo picnic at Fork York in Toronto, where she seemed more than a little on the shaky side, playing only one song composed since her controversial 1996 record Wasteland of the Free (which with radio bans due to its anti-Gulf War and related sentiments made her Nashville’s Dixie Chicks of the 1990s, although obviously on a smaller scale), and that one song was about reading self-help books. As David Cantwell later revealed in a fine piece for No Depression, she had been dealing with divorce and a life-long struggle with depression. I was relieved, then, to hear a new album from her in 2004, Life Line, but beautiful as it was, it was a collection of gospel covers, with, again, just one original (a great retelling of the Good Samaritan story called “He Reached Down”).

Last week in Montreal, however, DeMent played a good six or seven songs that seemed to be of recent vintage, igniting hope in a faithful fan’s heart that we’d hear a record of new tunes from her sometime in the 21st century. One was a touching anniversary song, “I Think This Love’s Gonna Last,” for her husband, folksinger Greg Brown, whom she married practically on sight back in 2002: They’d both been around enough to have tried it all the other ways, she explained, so why not? (Committing herself enough to express it in song was a bigger step, she half-joked.) There was a great tune in tribute to the frank talk of her 90-year-old mom (DeMent, now in her lateish 40s, is the youngest of 14 kids), a wrenching one addressed to a lost child and another about losing a sibling in childhood (one couldn’t help wondering in both cases if this was fact or fiction, but no question that they were true).

The latter, “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” was a return to one of the essential themes for DeMent, who was raised in a Pentecostal family where “worldly music” was forbidden (though anyone who’d put out a gospel album was okay, which was how she got her hands on Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn albums), and has sung throughout her career about her adult agnosticism (perhaps best expressed in “Let the Mystery Be”) and love-hate relationship with religion, on the one hand as a way to bond with people and the natural world, and on the other as a locus of hypocrisy and judgment rather than compassion. She also played a lighter little ode to a morning-glory flower at the top of a hill near her and Brown’s home in Iowa - “it’s a happy song - when I have them, I like to point that out.”

But of course there were also old favourites, opening with a version of My Life lead track “Sweet is the Melody,” itself a meditation on the difficulty of songwriting (”so hard to come by/ it’s so hard to make every note bend just right/ you lay down the hours and leave not one trace/ till a tune for the dancing is there in its place”); the song had been rearranged, its melody (ironically enough) rewritten, I assumed to avoid some of the high notes that she might find harder to hit now that her voice has matured out of its early, swooping girlishness. The crowd, a mix of longtime devotees (she said she was surprised to find out that her music had reached people this far from home) and Pop Montreal newcomers, gave her two standing ovations and were rewarded with a closing version of “the first song I wrote that I thought was good enough to play for anyone but my mama,” the bittersweet “Our Town.”

My eyes gave their own pair of ovations when they brimmed over with tears in a couple of songs (and came close several times more), and I left the hall grateful to feel that DeMent had found a greater contentment than when I saw her last, that Pop Montreal has the capacious taste and imagination to welcome such an artist into a program much heavier on youthful or self-consciously avant-garde ones (though I wished they’d double-billed her in the church on Saturday with Buffy Sainte-Marie), and that my week revisiting my old stomping grounds in Montreal and so many musical touchstones had ended on such a grace note, with a true homecoming of the heart.

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  2. sean says:

    you make me very sorry i missed this, carl.

  3. colonel tom says:

    Yes. She is fantastic. Unfortunately I couldn’t wheedle my way into Hugh’s Room with my Dad (who is also big fan) as the show sold out super quickly a long time ago. I hear Hugh’s Room begged her to do one or even two more shows and she flat out refused. Dunno why.

  4. Me, you, and every record we’ve ever heard « simple pleasures says:

    [...] ‘Banana Pancakes’ a few years back, I can tell you about Iris DeMent because Carl Wilson wrote about her. In other words, my taste IS in fact shaped by the very recommendations from which I want to [...]

  5. Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 4: Morning, Flying & Mystery | chimesfreedom says:

    [...] the song only could have been written by someone who was raised in a religious environment. DeMent grew up in a Pentecostal family where she was not allowed to listen to non-gospel music, and the song brings out the division [...]

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