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First Impressions

October 6, 2008

Like many things in life, people often judge an arts experience by the entrance that a performer makes on stage. Whether it's the members of the male a cappella vocal ensemble Chanticleer all traipsing on stage in perfect tuxedo-sporting synchronicity with black folders neatly tucked under their right arms, or Katherine Hunter loping on with a scowl as the malignant, hunchbacked Bolingbroke in a production of Shakespeare's Richard III I witnessed in 2003 at London's Globe, performers tell us much about what to expect within the first few seconds of their act.

So it was interesting, on Friday night, to experience the country singer Iris Dement's entrance at in San Francisco. Shuffling on stage with her head bowed, her guitar hung haphazardly around her neck like a baby chimp, spilling liquid from a cup in one hand and carrying a plastic bottle of water in the other, Dement looked like she was carrying huge bags of groceries to her front door rather than getting ready to play before a packed house at one of the west coast's premiere jazz clubs.

Dement sighed, put down her load, and plonked herself down at the piano. "So much for a smooth start," said the singer-songwriter in her husky, southern drawl.

Dement's entrance might have left some audience members non-plussed, and her appearance -- stocky, bespectacled and dressed like a school marm in an old-fashioned, knee-length, patterned sun-dress, chunky-heeled sandals, woolly cardigan and string of beads -- didn't exactly exude country music heroine cool. But as soon as Dement started paying, I certainly forgot about her entrance. Or, rather, the quirkiness of those opening moments coupled with her slightly frumpy appearance, only served to endear her to me.
I was struck by the contrast between the sweet, pleading penetration of her singing voice, the husky, I-just-got-out-of-bed-stoned timbre of her speaking voice and the Tom Waitsy rocking of her piano style. As far as I recall, all of the songs in Dement's spiraling, close-to-two-hour unbroken set were strophic. And every time the chorus came around in her melodies on such themes as enduring love, spiritual wonder and soaking in nature, the songs seemed to get more and more under my skin.

Dement's songs have a candidness to them that's at once inspiring and refreshing. She tells it like it is without being cynical. One of my favorite songs from the concert was "Let The Mystery Be". The open, sparse chords sounded as truthful and free-ranging as the philosophy of the lyrics, which explore our attempts to understand "the great unknown." With its jaunty stride bass and cracked melody, "Mama's Opry", a memoir about Dement's relationship with her mother, is as much an exasperated appraisal of -- as it is a tribute to -- the tough, 91-year-old woman.

Dement's performance also presented an interesting combination of extreme self-absorption and brazen worldliness. At one point, she commented about how much she loved playing the piano at Yoshi's ("This piano sounds so good to me; if I'm not careful, I'll forget you're there.") At another, she played a few bars of a song then changed her mind, saying that she suddenly didn't feel like performing that number anymore. On the other hand, her commentary included pained thoughts about the state of the nation ("I'm not too happy with the way things are going in this country right now") and her decision to join a new church, inspired by a Kansas City pastor she heard on the radio who stated "christianity and capitalism don't go together."

A friend who attended the concert with me was unhappy that Dement spent so much time behind the piano. He prefers her guitar-playing, of which she did very little during the set. But I didn't mind the keyboard-centric bent of the evening. I found myself completely absorbed in the singer's sound. My first impression of seeing Dement perform live will probably stay with me forever. But the thing that will stay with me the longest, I think, is the memory of her wonderfully humorous, bitter-sweet ballad about an aging couple entitled "This Love's Gonna Last." I will never forget the lyrics of the refrain for their pungent imagery. I'll leave you with these words:

Some days together we're like baseballs breaking glass
Still, I think this love's going to last.


  • Lovely writing, thanks. Love the unexpected image of the line you quoted at the end - couples the sense memory of being the kid who hit the baseball (the instant of conflicting run away vs stay and face the music impulses as the glass breaks) and that kind of love affair. Does to my head what Josh Ritter did the first time I heard the line "All the other girls here are stars - you are the Northern Lights."

    By Blogger Tom, At October 7, 2008 at 12:57 AM  

  • Thanks for your sweet words, Tom. I don't know Josh Ritter's music. what song is that lyric from?

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At October 7, 2008 at 10:05 AM  

  • Hi - replied but it didn't take so I'll try again. The lyrics are from a song called Kathleen on an album called Hello Starling. He's a kind of alt country Dylanish kinda guy. I think Kathleen was sort of a hit, at least in some circles. You Tube has the studio version with a video montage and several live versions with the audience singing along.

    By Blogger Tom, At October 8, 2008 at 10:33 PM  

  • Um..I think you mean Gloucester, not Bolingbroke.

    By Blogger Unknown, At October 23, 2008 at 12:28 AM  

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