In a plain gray dress and black-rimmed glasses, singer-songwriter Iris DeMent looked more like a stereotypical librarian than the musical treasure that she actually is when she took the stage at Eddie’s Attic last night. But she came out swinging as she, armed with an acoustic guitar, and her skilled backing band launched into the declaratory “The Way I Should,” the title track from her third album, released in 1996. DeMent and her three-piece backing band were quietly powerful during the opener as well as the second song, “Let the Mystery Be,” one of her signature tunes from her 1992 debut Infamous Angel, at which point the 53-year-old switched to piano for an evening consisting mostly of the country-gospel-infused songs from her 2012 release Sing the Delta, her first set of original material since The Way I Should.
The band members were a study in tasteful restraint and substance over flash. The trio comprised a solid standup bass, a stripped-down drum kit (mostly played with brushes that the drummer often used to paint the snare rather than thwack it), and colorful controlled accompaniment from guitar and occasional mandolin that were more than capable of creating the suitable mood. Whether a song called for a more spirited vibe (the Band-like “Livin’ on the Inside”) or a plaintive feel (“When My Mornin’ Comes Around”), these musicians were up to the task.
Dement herself switched gracefully between guitar and a grand piano that appeared extra-large on the cozy Attic stage. But of course, it is DeMent’s straight-to-the-heart songs and her angelic voice—certainly one of the purest and sincere instruments in contemporary folk or country music—that were the draw for the standing-room-only crowd of the faithful at Eddie’s. Though decidedly a veteran performer at this point in her career, DeMent still seems a bit uncomfortable between songs; at one point she jokingly proclaimed the audience was TOO quiet. But she also commented on how grateful she was to be playing at such an intimate venue as Eddie’s (on her trip to Atlanta last May, she played at the Variety Playhouse), and was completely comfortable while singing and playing, which was obviously the reason the polite, mostly middle-aged listeners had gathered so willingly on a chilly Sunday evening.
The 20-song set ended with a one-two-punch of an encore: “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven” from Sing the Delta and her most well-known song, “Our Town,” from her debut, decisively showing how Iris DeMent hasn’t lost a step as a singer or songwriter in her 20-plus years of recording.