Early on Friday night, Iris DeMent remarked upon the 16-year wait that had preceded her remarkable new collection of songs, “Sing the Delta.” Nobody had wanted a new record more than she did, she said, before glancing at the mystery of the songwriting process: “It finally happened.” So it was no surprise that her performance Friday was dominated by her new record, including all but one of its 12 songs.
For most of them, she was accompanied by a stellar backing trio (Jason Wilber on guitar, Jon Graboff on pedal steel, mandolin, and acoustic guitar, and Kyle Kegerreis on stand-up bass). The result was beautiful, full-band renditions that served to bring out the emotive force of songs such as “Sing the Delta” and “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” and the combination of DeMent’s impossibly thick twang and Graboff’s sweeping steel on others — “Making My Way Back Home” and “If That Ain’t Love” — plumbed the depths of deep country.
DeMent did take to the piano by herself for several songs, including her tribute to her mother from “Sing the Delta,” “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth.” That stripped-down version, with the singer testifying at the piano, affirmed that her roots run deep in gospel as well as country music.
A show that stretched to two-plus hours in length had room for DeMent to look back to her other records via the acoustic country of “Our Town,” the pure gospel of “Everlasting Arms,” the light swing of “I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight,” and the rollicking, bluegrassy “Hotter than Mojave in My Heart.” She looked beyond her own recordings for a couple of gems, too, including a Jimmie Rodgers cover (complete with a bit of yodel at the end) and a sublime version of a song by her stepdaughter, singer-songwriter Pieta Brown.
It also had room for DeMent to talk as well as sing and play, to tell stories about the things she manifestly holds dear, the things that animate so many of her songs — her mother, her father, her family past and present, and the places “her people” come from. She was as fearlessly honest and as compelling (as well as, at times, drop-dead funny) in speaking about those things as she was in singing about them.