More than most genres, the right voice goes a long, long way in Americana. As another reliably diverse Celtic Connections line-up comes around, few voices in this year’s programme can match that of Iris DeMent. The Arkansas native is blessed with one of the most achingly beautiful and heart-stopping vibratos in contemporary music, one that has seen her amass a dedicated following and awed respect amongst her peers despite little in the way of recorded output (just six solo albums in 28 years outside of sporadic collaborations with the likes of John Prine and Tom Russell). Whilst hardly the most prolific artist, her reputation precedes her, and if the overheard chatter at the bar tonight is anything to go by then she is the main draw of Celtic Connections for a lot of people this year.
After a warm applause to greet her, there is a hushed reverence as DeMent sits at her piano. You can literally hear the collective intake of breath amongst the crowd as she sings her first notes, that high, nakedly emotional vocal ringing loud and true like a country church bell. Her singing is so immediately evocative in conjuring the ghosts of the American heartlands that you can’t help but be transported to the great plains of Willa Cather’s novels or recall the stately Civil War-era ballads of Stephen Foster. That remarkable voice is carried by some exceptional piano playing, her traditional Pentecostal upbringing informing the hymn-like devotionals, with a rapturous Sing The Delta and equally moving Like A White Stone being particular highlights. It’s also refreshing to hear the songs stripped of the sometimes overbearing full-band arrangements of her albums, the performance mostly solo bar the mid-set appearance of CC old hands John McClusker (fiddle) and Michael McGoldrick (flute, uilleann pipes) to accompany Dement on crowd favourites like Let The Mystery Be and Our Town. If there’s a flaw to be had, it’s in the omissions. Her famous version of religious standard Leaning On The Everlasting Arms and beloved ballad My Life are conspicuous in their absence, lending the encore an anti-climactic air when they don’t appear, but such is the sterling quality of the preceding set it’s hard to imagine anyone leaving tonight disappointed.