Iris Dement at Birchmere Iris Dement had trouble getting started at the Birchmere Thursday night. Her microphone wasn't where it was supposed to be. Her guitar needed tuning. She bumped into the piano. After playing a few chords, she stopped so she could take off her sweater. "Nothing can ever be right," she sighed.

Listening to Dement play melancholy songs like "Easy's Gettin' Harder Every Day" and "I'll Take My Sorrow Straight," its not unreasonable to think she often reaches that conclusion. Singing "You've Done Nothing Wrong," she lingered on the lines, "We were happy for a while dear / but that's all over now." That sort of misery and despair might become withering after a time, but the quavering, twangy beauty of the 41-year-old Arkansan's voice can turn even the darkest lament into a lullaby.

Dement's droll humor also helped stave off unadulterated gloominess. "That's too much happy, so I'm going to play a funeral song," she joked before jumping into "Let the Mystery Be." Not having released a new album in six years, she conjured up older material like "Mama's Opry" and "Sweet Forgiveness," as well as a few old-time gospel songs like the Carter Family's "Gospel Ship."

Dement ended the show with a slow and moving rendition of her great song "Our Town," yet another example of her plain-spoken wisdom and the sort of songwriting efficiency and detail that would make any short-story writer envious. And yet another example of the many things that she got right.

-- Joe Heim

Regina Belle at Blues Alley Soul singer Regina Belle showed up at Blues Alley on Thursday night sporting new braids that reached far down her back -- or at least they did when she stood still for a minute or two. Otherwise Belle's voice, arms and hair were in full flight as she traced her 15-year recording career with unstinting energy and charm.

Unlike on some of her previous visits to town, the opening set wasn't marred by melismatic embellishments that seemed designed purely to get a rise out of the crowd. Belle has a terrific octave-leaping voice, and she's obviously aware that her audiences love to hear her display its exceptional range and agility. Like Patti LaBelle, she can easily get by on technique alone.

But this time around Belle appeared more attuned to the words she was singing, whether the tone of the song was romantic, bitter or inspirational. Among the latter was "What If," an original ballad that built to a dramatic gospel-fueled climax. It revealed Belle's vocal power and reach in a natural light, and much the same could be said for her tribute to Ella Fitzgerald -- an exuberant scat-laced reprise of "Mr. Paganini." Of course, the packed house wanted to hear Belle revisit her own hits, and she didn't disappoint. With the help of her seasoned band and background singers, she performed "What Goes Around," "Make It Like It Was," "Baby Come to Me" and other favorites that were sometimes augmented by crowd-generated harmonies.

The engagement runs through tomorrow.

-- Mike Joyce