Monday, November 14, 2011

Iris Dement and Greg Brown, Friday night at the Folly Theater

Posted By on Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 7:18 AM

Appropriately, "Our Town: An Evening With Iris DeMent and Greg Brown" began with the faces of the children who were the real focus of Friday evening's show at the Folly Theater. A video montage of the kids served by United Inner City Services (UICS) and St. Mark Child and Family Development Center played over Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “On Children.” The wise, funny and beautiful faces of these children supported Sweet Honey in the Rock’s demand that they be respected.

And, in many ways, respect — the act of looking again, the work of consideration — was a cornerstone theme for an evening rich with meaning. Fittingly, Dorice Ramsey, the executive director of UICS, started the show, pointing out that “every single cent” of the money raised that night would go to the program. She introduced one of the program’s past parents, Stephanie Burton, a single mother who, with the help of UICS, managed to not only complete school but earn four degrees and open her own law office. St Mark’s Rev. Sam Mann then took the stage and thanked several of the church’s “ancestors” for the foundation and guidance in his work. He also thanked the benefit committee (including longtime members of the KC arts scene Lisa Cordes, Mark Manning and Elaine McMilian) as well as church members DeMent and Brown. At the end of this moving opener, Mann was blurring the (admittedly thin) line between preacher and rock-and-roll DJ, introducing “freedom fighter, freedom singer Greg Brown!”

Brown put the focus right back on the children, with “Tenderhearted Child” as his opener. He introduced his second song, explaining Sam Mann actually wrote it and saying Mann has “had a lot of lives, and this is a little piece of one of them.” After that, Brown even offered a moment of respect for the 100-year-old theater, saying, “I can just feel all the beautiful music that’s been played here.” Brown dedicated “Hillbilly Girl” to his mother, who was sitting in a box seat above the stage.

Wearing an oversized tan suit with one of his floppy hats, Brown played his set with trademark humility. However, the range of emotions he evoked — from the ornery humor of “Lazy Bones” to the defiant cry of “Freak Flag” to the delicate sweetness of “The Lovinest One” — underscored the human dignity at stake. Particularly poignant in this performance were “If You Don’t Get It at Home,” which manages to find what’s universal in any desperate grab for love, and “The Cheapest Kind,” a song about the value of love on empty pockets.

DeMent took the stage in a pretty white dress and played a piano for the majority of her set. She began by thanking Mann for the call to the ancestors and added her own. She told a story of her father fighting through a solid year of a wildcat strike while he had 10 kids at home to feed. DeMent said she lost her father too early to thank him, but, to that end, offered up a beautiful new song, “If That Ain’t Love.”

One of the most remarkable things about DeMent’s set was just how much new material she offered. Of her 11 songs, only two — “He Reached Down” (dedicated to Mann) and “Our Town” — were ones that most audience members would have heard before. But DeMent’s performance, including often very funny, sometimes heartbreaking stories to introduce each song, was riveting from beginning to end.

Not unlike the woman in the second song, “Mama Told Her Truth,” DeMent’s artistic voice is direct and honest. And the combination of the high, plaintive sound of that voice and the depth of her vision turned each of these songs into something rediscovered and precious. Her third song, “Like a White Stone,” based on lyrics by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, served as poignant segue to a variety of descriptions of the Mississippi Delta, a little hill near her Iowa home, and even a favorite morning flower. Each seemed a piece of what’s most important — in terms of the evening, the very concepts of home and family and happiness. The piano set summed things up with a song about “a whole lotta heaven shining in this river of tears.”

The loving humor that hallmarked DeMent’s introductions was summed up when she moved from piano to guitar. She paid tribute to her marriage with a song that admits, “some days together we’re like baseballs breaking glass,” but finds many reasons to believe “this love’s gonna last.” DeMent closed out her set with “Our Town,” a consideration of the value of a community amidst a larger world that doesn’t seem to care.

For the encore, Brown and DeMent did a duet of Austin singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’ ” and the spiritual “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” touching back on at least three traditions that bind them together. With its faith in an inch of progress at a time, “Jacob’s Ladder” presented DeMent and Brown as simply two more shoulders to the wheel in a room full of “brothers and sisters all.”

Greg Brown Set List

Tenderhearted Child
I Met a Man (Sam Mann song)
Lazy Bones
Freak Flag
Hillbilly Girl
Billy From the Hills
The Lovinest One
If You Don’t Get It at Home
The Cheapest Kind
Samson

Iris DeMent Set List (Song titles guessed for new material)

If That Ain’t Love (new)
Mama Told Her Truth (new)
Like a White Stone (new)
He Reached Down
Delta Love Song (new)
Eagle Hill (new)
Morning Glory (new)
Go On Ahead and Go Home (new)
This Love’s Gonna Last (new)
Our Town

Encore (DeMent and Brown)

If I Needed You
Honky Tonkin’
We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

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