For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s preview of this show, click here.
Iris DeMent was wearing her influences on her sleeve when she performed at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre Saturday night.
Before a roughly half-full theater, DeMent tackled traditional gospel, old-time country and her own songs, which offered up a bit of both, in her unique warbling vocal style. Although not everything stuck, what did work, along with DeMent’s charming demeanor, was more than enough.
She opened up strongly at the piano with her own “That’s the Way Love Goes,” before tackling a gospel tune, “Surely I Will, Lord.” Her voice was perhaps best suited for these religious excursions, with “The Old Gospel Ship” and her own “He Reached Down” shining especially bright.
“Living on the Inside” was an early highlight, the introspective lyrics highlighted by DeMent’s graceful piano lines. She followed this up with “Mama Told Her Truth,” a song dedicated to her 92-year-old grandmother that helped to lighten the mood, and “Morning Glory,” a song about a flower. Although she messed up slightly on “This Love’s Gonna Last,” she quickly recovered and once again delivered a strong performance.
DeMent’s voice is a bit of an acquired taste, and she certainly knows its strengths and limitations — gospel and country is perfect for her. However, her version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” was a low moment for her vocally, and was not helped by the fact that the acoustic guitar she switched to for the song was slightly out of tune (and remained so for the rest of the night, although it wasn’t as noticeable on other songs).
But only a few songs later, DeMent delivered perhaps the strongest performance of the evening on “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” a sad yet touching song during which everything came together for the singer. The rest of the evening was all uphill from there, with stunning versions of Merle Haggard’s “Pray” and Cindy Walker’s “Going Away Party” helping to close out the night on a bright spot.
Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison brought his earnest, down-to-earth brand of country picking to the stage to open the night up. According to Robison, the only songs he plays are “sad songs, and slightly faster sad songs,” and he remained true to that, singing about breakups and, well, more breakups on songs such as set opener “The New Me” and “Desperately.” His accompaniment on second guitar, Miles Zuniga, did more than just play lead, as his counter-melodies wove their way in and out of Robison’s own crisp playing.
Best here were “My Brother and Me,” a touching ode to family; and “Travelin’ Soldier,” a song written during the first Gulf War in 1991 and recorded by The Dixie Chicks. And with “What Would Willie Do?” Robison proved he could do more than just mope, offering up humorous lines about taking life lessons from Willie Nelson. (“He’d take a deep breath — and then take another deep breath”).