Reviewed by Jim Caligiuri, Fri., Feb. 21, 2014
Iris DeMentCactus Cafe, Feb. 16
Midway through the 90-minute set of her second sold-out night at the Cactus Cafe last weekend, Iris DeMent admitted she expected to have a backing band, but that recent bad weather on the East Coast prevented them from traveling. Not that it made any difference. DeMent last appeared here in 2009, so she easily sold out Friday and Sunday night. The big news was the quintessential middle-American singer-songwriter had new songs to share, Sing the Delta having appeared late in 2012, her first originals in 16 years. Notoriously shy, DeMent semi-hid behind a grand piano most of the night. "I'd sing behind a sheet if I could," she acknowledged, but the songs, both new and old, were characteristically wrenching and cinematic. The newest material deals with family ties and growing up in the Arkansas Delta. "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray" stood out for its straightforward yet harrowing recollection of a younger brother's death. She dedicated "Makin' My Way Back Home" to Tammy Wynette, DeMent having adopted the country diva as a kindred spirit. There was also a story of her mom being upset with Merle Haggard when he changed the words to one of Iris' songs while recording it. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," she shrugged. DeMent picked up her guitar for the last two songs of the set, ending with a sweetly rendered version of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone." Her shrill vocals might still be an acquired taste, but DeMent's bittersweet melodies remain something to treasure.