Getting past the hard times

Prominent female vocalists take center stage at Laxson

OZARK FLOWER Iris DeMent brought her reedy but soulful voice to the Chico World Music Festival Saturday.

OZARK FLOWER Iris DeMent brought her reedy but soulful voice to the Chico World Music Festival Saturday.

photo by Tom Angel

Two singer-songwriters with decidedly different styles appeared at Laxson Auditorium Saturday night, as part of the Chico World Music Festival’s feature performances.

Country-folksinger Iris DeMent, who headlined the show, sang her tales of rural Americana while strumming an acoustic guitar and sometimes sitting behind a piano. While she’s a serviceable player on both instruments, her lyrics, which added color, and her highly unusual voice, which added texture to each of her works, were clearly her fortes.

Opening with one of her best-known tunes, “Sweet Is the Melody,” DeMent sang, “It’s so hard to make every note bend just right.” That one line perfectly described her singing style. During her entire set, vocal treatments were peppered with unique inflections and pronunciations that resonated through the auditorium.

DeMent, 40, from Paragould, Ark., of all places, drew mostly on material from her previous three albums. Though her last album, The Way I Should, was released back in 1996, DeMent has kept an ongoing presence in the studio, collaborating in the last few years with artists such as John Prine, Delbert McClinton, Loudon Wainwright III and Ralph Stanley. She also appeared as an Appalachian balladeer, circa 1907, in the Lion’s Gate film Songcatcher, released earlier this year.

Probably due to recent world events, DeMent shied away from her left-leaning political songs, most notably “Wasteland of the Free,” an anti-U.S.-politics, anti-large-corporation anthem. She closed the evening with probably her most popular tune, “Our Town,” an ode to Small Town, U.S.A.

Though DeMent’s songs were performed quite well, her between-song stage presence was awkward and clumsy. Constantly adjusting her blouse and hair, DeMent had the apprehensive demeanor of a sixth-grade schoolchild. Her only comment on the recent attacks on the United States was that she had talked with a friend of hers who could probably hook her up with some Valium. Though she was probably joking, one would think that, if she was going to broach the topic, she could’ve offered us something a little more insightful.

On a more positive note, the irresistible Laura Love was back in town to open the show, performing as a duo with longtime band mate Jen Todd. Love worked her red, oversized electric bass at a low decibel level, but produced a bright, funky backdrop for her soaring vocals. Todd traded off between a hand-held wooden drum and acoustic guitar. Though the duo’s sound was quite toned down from the five-piece Laura Love Band, the softer instrumental dynamics allowed for Love’s vocals to take center stage.

With a voice that is a bit reminiscent of Toni Childs, Love added her own strong brand of vocal phrasings that acted as an accompanying instrument. She also wore a perpetual smile and frequently broke into funky little dance steps that had her long braids flying out from under her trademark bandanna.

From song to song, Love and Todd easily shifted moods. “Amazing Grace” was sung with true feeling—Love’s poignant singing turned Laxson Auditorium into a cathedral. She dedicated “Sometime Davey Wins” (rather than Goliath) to the people of Chico who fought against and defeated the pro-developer Measure A initiative at the polls earlier this year. In addition, the duo performed such faves as “Octoroon,” “Blind Bartimus” and Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic.”

After Love encouraged the audience that “We’re gonna get through these hard times,” the duo gave a little social commentary, ending its set with a soft version of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” with a bit of the Beatles’ “Come Together” thrown in for good measure.

Aside from playing a bunch of favorites for the always Love-happy Chico crowd, the duo augmented their performance with endearing banter and a lot of laughs. At one point, Todd pointed out that Love had CDs for sale in the lobby and urged attendees to buy them to raise money for her cats. Yes, Laura said, "I have 13 cats, and five need braces. So if each of you takes home five CDs …"