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Iris DeMent w/ Dan Israel (Friday, August 12th, 2005, Fitzgerald Theatre, St. Paul)
Dan Israel and Iris DeMent - Photos by Steve Cohen

By David Rachac

Friday night at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St Paul saw local singer/songwriter Dan Israel paired up with alternative country heavyweight Iris DeMent, both putting on solid shows in front of an appreciative audience.

In addition to being the home for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion (and the recently-shot movie version), the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul has been aggressive in booking shows, hosting such acts as Kasey Chambers and Joe Jackson within the last year, and with Taj Mahal coming up September 27th.

Seeing a show at the Fitzgerald is an intimate experience – the acoustics are tremendous, and every seat is practically right on top of the stage. You could even hear DeMent’s toe-tap as she kept time when playing piano. Being so close and surrounded by such a rich, full sound makes you feel like you are watching the show in your own living room and makes for a very satisfying experience.

One could excuse Dan Israel if he was a little overwhelmed by it all. In addition to playing in front of the largest crowd of his solo career, he was also running on empty, with his wife having given birth to their first child just 16 hours before. In spite of that (or maybe because of it), Israel put on possibly his most solid solo show to date. Passing up his usual inclination to engage in long periods of patter with the audience, Israel bore down on eight songs, including four from his most recent CD time I get home and a new song from his upcoming CD. He dedicated “Come To Me” to his newborn son, but after the line “Come to me when booze and drugs aren’t enough to cope,” he interjected that his son wasn’t doing that quite yet, which got a laugh from the audience. Ending his set with “Better Road” and an ironic plea to buy a CD to help pay for diapers, Israel departed to satisfied applause.

Iris DeMent has one the most authentic voices in the alternative country movement today. Her drawling, warbling vibrato can put some people off, but those who can appreciate her Dustbowl-era vocal approach are rewarded with her deep, personal stories of small town life and loss. Stepping in front of the crowd wearing a dark flower print dress, DeMent looked every bit like the characters she sings about, making her lyrical narrative seem that much more honest and from the heart.

Compared to past shows, DeMent concentrated less on her more overtly political songs in exchange for more emphasis on the spiritual themes addressed on her 2004 CD Lifeline. Starting out on guitar, DeMent played three songs from her first two albums, highlighted by an especially poignant “You’ve Done Nothing Wrong,” a song about two people falling out of love. DeMent seemed to slow most of her songs down slightly, adding an air of melancholy to the sadness of her lyrics, and helping to keep the audience’s rapt attention.

Switching to piano, DeMent performed several spiritual songs that I did not recognize, but the passion she brought to these songs made them feel familiar. Before she went back to guitar, she told the audience she had been married three years (to folk artist Greg Brown), but it took her a year before she could write a song about it. Pairing this song (“This Love’s Gonna Last”) with “Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day,” a song about loneliness in a marriage, made for an interesting juxtaposition, but just reinforced how fragile relationships can be.

Finishing her set with “Our Town,” DeMent came back for an encore with Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and finished with a hair-raising rendition of “My Life,” to the delighted applause of her dedicated fan base. Overall, it was a very good evening of music in St Paul, seeing a local boy rise to the occasion, and seeing one of alternative country’s icons show why she is so revered.

David Rachac is drachac[at]

Set List – Dan Israel
Down The Line
Lingering Questions
Come To Me
Feet In The Water
Some Time
Brings You Back
Better Road

Set List – Iris DeMent
These Hills
You’ve Done Nothing Wrong
Sweet Is The Melody
Tell My Truth
Living On The Inside
When My Morning Comes Around
[Daddy worked at the wax museum….]
Surely I Will
Sweet Hour of Prayer
[Old dress my momma gave to me….]
This Love’s Gonna Last
Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day
Let The Mystery Be
He Reached Down
Our Town
I Still Miss Someone
My Life