At the end of his typically quirky, dryly humorous set at the Birchmere last Wednesday night, Loudoun Wainwright III, reciting passages from a moving article written by his father for Life Magazine about an expectant father who had just lost his newborn son, ended by observing “how close all life is to sorrow.” As it transpired, this theme – family, and the joys and sorrow it brings – ran through the entire evening; a moving and introspective double bill featuring Wainwright and Iris DeMent.
It is easy to see why Wainwright was hailed early in his career as the next Bob Dylan. His cadence and vocal patterns certainly call him to mind. And, like Dylan, storytelling is his thing, and he does it very well. However, Wainwright, who specializes in satirically amusing jabs at the absurdities of life, can be a bit of an acquired taste. Accompanying himself on guitar for most of the evening, the musical elements of many of the songs in his set were mere background to his storytelling, though there were lovely melodic interludes on songs such “Another Song in C,” and his cover of Frank Loesser’s “More I Cannot Wish You” from Guys and Dolls.
As he noted at the beginning of his set, many of Wainwright’s performances lately have been influenced by memories of his father and family, and his choice of songs bore that out, including “All in a Family,” “I Knew Your Mother,” “Dilated to Meet You” (yes, that’s the title) and especially the very affecting “Half-Fist,” which recalled the lives of his father and grandfather.
If you are a fan of Wainwright (as I am), you would not have been disappointed. If this was your first exposure to him, you might have come away bemused if not amused, but my bet is you would have been intrigued enough to give him another try.
The second half of this double bill, and the highlight for me, came as Iris DeMent strode tentatively onto the stage. Seemingly nervous, she was constantly trying to lower the audience’s expectations, apologizing at one point for her inability to loosen up, and eventually accepting a beer from an audience member. She needn’t have worried so much. From the first note, you could tell she was on top of her game. Her vocal tone was clear, almost translucent, while her voice, tremulous and almost child-like was surprisingly powerful, easily filling the venue space. She accompanied herself on piano for all but two songs. Her playing was uncomplicated, but served the songs well. And, she was backed up by two excellent musicians– Chris Donahue playing primarily stand-up bass and Paul Niehaus on pedal steel and guitar. Donahue’s bass playing in particular deserves mention. Using both pizzicato and bow, his intonation was spot on, difficult enough for any stringed instrument, even more so in such a low register.
Like Wainwright, DeMent performed songs whose main theme was the grounding family provides. Several songs recalled her Arkansas roots, including “Sing the Delta,” “Mornin’ Glory” and “The Shores of Jordan.” The latter hinted at a nostalgia for the gospel tinged spirituality of her youth. She revealed an ambiguous relationship with that same spirituality, performing the haunting and sad “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray” that recounted the death of a friend’s child; that friend, subsequently, turned to atheism. Her “Let the Mystery Be,” joyfully revels in its agnosticism.
Nearly half of her 13 song set came from her newest album, The Trackless Woods. Inspired by the work of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet working during the height of communist rule, every song on the album is one of Akhmatova’s translated poems set to beautiful melody. As DeMent told it, these poems spoke to her as she looked for ways to connect with the heritage of her adopted Russian daughter. That she was able to translate the cadence of poetry into the meter of song so successfully is a testament to her abilities as a songwriter. My favorite from among these was “Like a White Stone.” Its spare, simple melody is memorable without being “catchy,” and the lyrics provided a coda to the evening. The last line summed up perfectly the themes of sorrow and family that ran through both performances, “That marvelous sorrows might endure forever/You have been changed into a memory. “