GREG BROWN, IRIS DEMENT AND PIETA BROWN, Red Butte Garden Amphitheater, Sunday

It was a family affair at Red Butte Garden Sunday night.

After a cancellation by co-headliner Alejandro Escovedo earlier in the week, the other headliner, Greg Brown, instead was joined by Iris DeMent on the bill. DeMent, for the record, is Brown's wife.

Oh, and the opener for the dual headliners? Pieta Brown, Greg Brown's daughter.

It wasn't only on the stage that families reigned. For the first time this year, Red Butte was not packed to the hillsides, which meant that children could run wild, groups of families could sprawl across the lawn, and the atmosphere felt more like the old Red Butte — for better and worse.

As an opener, Pieta held her own, gripping the crowd with her beautifully gravelly voice that evoked Lucinda Williams. And her songwriting also carried hints of Williams, as well as her hero, Loretta Lynn.

Following Pieta was DeMent, who seated herself at the piano and, after adjusting to the glare of the sun — another element that often haunted performers in the old Red Butte amphitheater — meditating musically on issues ranging from the afterlife to her mother's blunt personality.

The best songs in DeMent's impressive catalog are those that address deeper questions, with the best of them being "Let the Mystery Be." Although she played it early in her set, it was one of her strongest.

Following DeMent, Greg Brown came to the stage accompanied by Bo Ramsey on guitar — he also accompanied Pieta Brown earlier — which gave important depth to his folksy songs.

First and foremost, Greg Brown is a songwriter who captures the essence of America, especially the absurdities of everyday life. With lines like "There's a tenderloin special at the Sak 'N' Save, the sky is a dirty sock" in "Kokomo," he is masterful at setting scenes that paint an often less-than-heroic but realistic image.

Often heralded as a folk singer, his sound is actually much closer to early, acoustic blues singers such as Muddy Waters. That was driven home with his rendition of "Preachin' the Blues," written by Son House.

Greg Brown does especially well when he tackles personal relationships, such as on "China" or "Like a Dog." In both of those, for instance, he addresses significant issues such as communication problems or unrequited love with a wry sense of humor.

To close out the night, the whole family returned to the stage for two gospel songs. It was a low-key finale, but it capsulated the entire night, which was pretty much perfect, even if the music played only a small part in that perfection.


E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com