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Dement aims for the heart

Neighborhood Church, Pasadena, Cal., July 17, 1998

By Dan MacIntosh

PASADENA, CA - An Iris Dement concert is usually accompanied by a degree of stage fright, but to see this escapee from a strongly religious Pentecostal family sing her largely secular songs in the spot where a pulpit usually stands each Sunday morning is really something unique.

Dement's voice sounded shrill and forced for the first three or four songs of her set, but as her nerves began to calm, her shrillness decreased, and her vocal charms slowly came into focus.

By the time she had comfortably seated herself behind the piano for the sentimental "Walkin' Home" from her most recent album "The Way I Should," all was forgiven, and she had the audience eating out of her hands.

Melancholy is the best word to describe a Dement show. The occasional upbeat song, like "Hotter Than Mojave In My Heart" or lighthearted memories such as "Mama's Opry," were few and far between.

Instead, hopeless love songs like "You've Done Nothing Wrong," meditations upon losing a loved one, as on "No Time To Cry," and stories featuring tragic characters, like the abused girl in "Letter to Mom" were the most common kinds of songs this night.

Dement often struggled just to get these songs sung because she's so painfully shy. Showbiz is clearly not her middle name. Nevertheless, she did make little jokes in between songs and came off charming - despite her handicaps.

She's been criticized recently for leaning too heavily upon the social and political concerns on "The Way I Should," but when it came time for her to sing "Wasteland of the Free" towards the evening's end, this scathing attack on the shortcomings of modern day America allowed the hesitant Dement to sing with a little gusto for a change.

Gusto is probably the last word most folks would use to describe Dement's singing style, because she most often aims gently for the heart, instead of for the gut. Fortunately, her aim is usually right on target.

Kieran Kane (formerly of The O'Kanes) opened with a low key batch of self-penned folk-country songs highlighted by "I'll Go On Loving You," Alan Jackson's current single.

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