Friday, 29 July 2011

On Fire in Perth: Iris Dement July 23rd 2011

Most of the music you hear on the radio today is developed for making money. It doesn't feel true or honest. You can feel it in the music. - Iris DeMent
An idle google search two or three weeks ago was the first I had heard that Iris Dement was making one of her rare trips to Europe, on this occasion to Perth in Scotland. I had never had the chance to see her on stage before, and despite the long distance I knew I had to go

Normally when I tell people I like Iris Dement they say "Iris who?", so I was very surprised that my neighbours had not only heard of her, but were keen to accompany me.

So, early in the morning, the awful events in Norway from where I had returned a few days before still playing on my mind, the three of us set off on the 260 mile journey across the beautiful countryside in northern England and the Scottish borders to arrive in time for the afternoon concert.

We were not disappointed. After what seemed a rather diffident start, almost hiding behind the piano on what she pointed out was a sloping stage, Iris seemed to gain confidence and composure, took up her guitar, came to the front of the stage and sang as only she can, her songs interspersed with amusing comments about her family and her life. The audience loved her and was reluctant to let her leave.

It lifted me in a way I had not expected, and I wondered how my wife, unavoidably absent in Norway, who finds Iris "too depressing", would have felt had she been there, as she loyally informed me she would have been had she been at home!

The concert included Iris's emblematic, "Our Town" and the first song I had heard her sing on the radio a long time ago, "Let The Mystery Be", here shown in a recording made some years ago:

Apparently Iris originally thought that this was, by her standards at least, a happy song, until a number of people told her that they would like to have it played at their funeral.

I appreciate that Iris Dement is an acquired taste, and I have tried to analyse why I respond to her in the way I do. Firstly I note the influence she ascribes to Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, two of the all time greats that are among my favourites. I also understand and very much relate to the deep and enduring influence of her now rejected evangelical Christian childood, which has been a part of my own life's experience.

But the words that immediately spring to mind are vulnerability, intensity and honesty. I imagine that she is not one of those people who have to be the centre of attention. When she sings she bares a little of herself, but remains a very private person. She is not I think a natural performer, and to my mind all the better for that. I realise now that when she refused to go on stage in March 2003 she was not primarily making a political point about the Iraq war, she was simply so upset that she felt unable to perform. Splitting hairs perhaps, but a truly political performer would have taken to the stage and used the occasion to her advantage.

Maybe I spent more time dwelling on emotions than some people, and maybe that's why I ended up writing. - Iris Dement

This selection of quotations attributed to her somehow confirmed the impression I had formed from listening to her music. I hope she soon returns to the United Kingdom or, "Haste ye back" as the Scots might say.


Iris Dement obviously sent me to bed happy. Soundly asleep in my hotel, I was awakened at 1.00 a.m. by voices outside my room and a knock on the door. I soon realised that my pyjamas were wet, and further inspection revealed a large very wet patch on the unused side of the double bed and water dripping down from the ceiling in a number of places. Apparently there had been a fire in the room above, the alarm had gone off at 12.20, the firemen had put the fire out, and I had slept through it all! I wonder how I would have reacted had I been sleeping on the other side of the bed! A memorable first visit to the fine city of Perth in every way.


  1. Great post, John. The first time I heard Iris sing, I didn't really care for her voice, but somehow it stuck in my mind. So, I came back to her after a period of time and listened again and soon became hooked.

    You nailed it exactly with the comment about her "vulnerability, intensity and honesty." I would add "authenticity" to that list. And I mean authentic in more than just the style of her singing, songwriting and playing. I mean her music is authentic in the sense that listening to her, it's impossible not to realize that she's very much communicating her "truth." She says what she means and means what she says.

    She's simply an awe-inspiring artist, in my view, and I imagine she's an equally awesome person.

  2. Great to hear that someone else feels the same way about her.
    Thanks very much for the nice comment.