Freakwater singer-guitarist Catherine Irwin took the Iota club's stage Monday night wearing a spangled Western shirt, a cowboy hat and skeleton gloves, but only the gloves -- which she removed after the first number -- were for Halloween. The rest of the costume reflected Irwin's dedication to a style of country music that doesn't have much to do with cowboys.

She and singing partner Janet Beveridge Bean perform originals in the tradition of old-timey Appalachian balladry: rough-hewn, doom-struck and very, very slow. In 100 minutes, Freakwater played only 16 songs.

Admittedly, there was a lot of downtime between numbers, as Irwin and Bean chatted, joked and tuned their guitars. But most of their time was devoted to such dirges as "Buckets of Oil," which trudged toward salvation at a deliberate pace. The quintet did a couple of up-tempo songs, notably the exuberant "So Strange," but its essential style depends on a unhurried gait. On such songs as "Loserville," a doleful tribute to the singers' Kentucky home town, unison singing became harmonizing almost by accident, as Irwin's and Bean's voices slipped out of alignment or Bean held individual notes longer or pushed them higher than her partner.

Although the band included a drummer who also played keyboards and saxophone, the two sopranos were always central. And if Irwin and Bean sounded a little more ragged than on Freakwater's recordings, that just added to the sense of authenticity.

-- Mark Jenkins