TVD Live: Iris DeMent and Loudon Wainwright III at the Birchmere, 5/11

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Iris DeMent’s career had already been something of a miracle: a clear voiced Southern gospel wail from a woman who wasn’t even that sure of her religious bearing, whose vocal power in concert could make one question the need for amplifiers, who was proclaimed by no less than Merle Haggard as his favorite voice in country. Then she did something more fascinating.

Inspired by the adoption of a 6-year-old from Siberia in 2005, she came across some poems from a Russian poet Anna Akhmatova that spoke so clearly to her—and seemed to have the cadences of her own gospel declarations, that she put 18 of them to song on her most recent album The Trackless Woods.

They provided the bulk of the performance with Loudon Wainwright III Wednesday at the Birchmere music hall, the Alexandria, Virginia stronghold marking its 50th anniversary. DeMent, 55, recalled that one of her first gigs more than 20 years ago was at the Birchmere, and it still served as a warm place for her to play, even when things weren’t always going her way.

Spiffed up in a mother of the bride kind of dress and fashionable eyewear, she began and ended the show strongly, on guitar, serving up the marvelous songs that made people take notice when that career was starting.

Among them, the fully-realized “Let the Mystery Be,” a tune so enduring it became the theme song last year to the second season of HBO’s The Leftovers. It’s one of a number of her songs that ponder the imponderable and seem to be set at the lip of a grave.

What’s righteous and true about her ringing tone and declarative words is tempered by her own uncertainty. Indeed in the very next song, “The Night I Learned Not to Pray,” she sees how ineffectual her faith is after a brother tumbles down the stairs and cracks open his head. “God does what God wants to any way,” she says in the chorus.

But only after a few of these songs, she gingerly stepped to a huge new grand piano—the club’s golden anniversary present to itself?—and said something about worrying about her own tumble off the stage. Once safely seated, she began her songs from The Trackless Woods.

DeMent shares with Akhmatova the penchant for simple language to drive a deeper message. But as tough as her own life may have been growing up the youngest of 14 in rural Arkansas, it couldn’t have matched that of the poet, who lived from 1889 to 1996, through the Russian Revolution, two World Wars, and various waves of repression.

Akhmatova’s extremely hindered career meant she had to memorize her own work, hide the originals, and whisper them to friends to spread her work around. Scraps of her work were found in gulags decades later by others who took her words to heart. How strange, then, to have her words, never well-known in the West, picked up and put to quasi-gospel backing and a yearning voice of the American backwoods. What a lovely unplanned musical detante.

Still, DeMent’s insistence to do all of those songs on piano (lest she risk a misstep on the way back to guitar) meant a certain sameness to the center of the show, where she played a half-dozen of the songs. Her own sometimes plodding lead on piano left her two backing musicians on bass and guitar with no option but follow. And the singer herself noticed how “tight as a drum” she was, calling out for water to drink at first and then emphatically for “not water” to drink. (Somebody gave her the rest of her beer).

It wasn’t the alcohol that she needed to loosen her up, she said; it was the psychological effect. All this happened after she had seen the opening act, an exceptionally fine and loose performance by Wainwright.

Wainwright’s been in the game for 45 years or so and has by now finely burnished the art of songwriting with deceptively simple and clever lyrics even as he has developed an awfully tasty fingerpicking and blues guitar style.

His mind is so quick and fertile, he was once hired by Nightline to deliver topical songs nightly on demand. He could still do it, proving it on the necessary “If Trump were President,” in which he names the outrageous choices for cabinet and military action (carpet bombing Montreal).

Wainwright could go on all night with such things, an improved Mark Russell with guitar. But he is more interested in his older age (69) at the dynamic of the family, particularly his father, a Life magazine columnist whom he rebelled against as a young man.

Having run across his columns in a Maine bed and breakfast, however, he was thrown for how beautiful these things were written. And for his current tours, he’s been including memorized columns, read dramatically, in between the kind of songs of family dissolution that have been a staple of his shows.

So he sang his own “Half Fist,” about recognizing his own grandfather in a picture after reciting his dad’s own column about the ghost left by his old man. Later comes his own songs about progeny, “Dilated to Meet You” and the more serious “I Knew Your Mother,” whose lyrics are so well drawn he repeats the chorus for emphasis: “Don’t forget that I knew her when; love was the means and you were the end.” Someday Rufus and Martha will rediscover his material and incorporate them on future tours as well.

It makes sense that an early influence of Wainwright (introduced to him by his father) was the ’60s topical songwriter Tom Lehrer—he did two of his songs Wednesday, but also one of Frank Loesser, a straight ahead love song that might have been included because it had not an ounce of cynicism in it (though it did have a “sheep’s eye”). And “because I don’t know a Prince song and I don’t know a David Bowie song,” one by Merle Haggard, “Today I Started Loving You Again.”

It was interesting that both Wainwright and DeMent shaped their shows around found literary works by others. And yet the dreary Washington weather—on the record 15th consecutive day of rain—was perfect for his songs of aging and woe that began with “Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet).”


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