>I approached last night’s Iron & Wine show like any other: with a hypercritical mind full of skepticism that Sam Beam and co. could possibly rise to the occasion of recreating the magic that they made on last year’s second most addicting album (next to In Rainbows), The Shepherd’s Dog. After Beam’s so-so solo performance at this year’s inaugural Rothbury Festival, an acoustic greatest hits show complete with charmingly sincere and humble banter, I wasn’t sure that the album could translate to the full band forum. From the first note, I knew that my doubts were completely unfounded.
Beam took the stage with his acoustic guitar in one hand and his sister, Sarah, in the other, and what ensued were some of the most hushed and tender harmonies that I have ever witnessed two people create. The Beams were so earnest, so genuine in their delivery of the acoustic set, that it was hard to believe that they’ve played those songs hundreds of times for tens-of-thousands of people. The moment of truth, though, was when the band slowly added themselves to the mix. First piano, then electric guitar and bass. The drums subtly complemented the build, and remained — as they are on Iron & Wine’s studio work — low in the mix, a fluttering undercurrent of tom rolls; and finally Sarah Beam picked up a violin and the band launched into the more expansive Shepherd’s Dog songs.
And launch is really the way to describe it. The build was slow and steady, and once the band slipped their moors the music shot right into the stratosphere. By the time I&W reached a climax with “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog),” Beam’s electric rhythm guitar was a driving prominent force and the meditative acoustic set had all but worn off. When one heckler called for “Freebird,” Beam was tempted to oblige, and even jokingly played the opening few bars to the Skynyrd classic. They mixed a surprising number of the acoustic-tending Our Endless Numbered Days, which they managed to spice up with an especially interesting and instrumentally diverse structured jam on On Your Wings and a heartwrenchingly honest version of Sodom, South Georgia. It is this honesty, Beam’s ability to practically reach inside and touch the audience’s collective soul and convey his fears joys losses loves heartbreaks, that truly defines him as a songwriter and performer. His voice, while as hollow as the marimba that was on stage with him, has a very distinctive timbre that lends itself well to both his lone wolf and his band leader personae, especially when combined with that of his sister (or, for that matter, her violin and accordion).
Part of my concern leading up to the concert was all the negative press that the venue Terminal 5, was getting. From the poor acoustics, to the deficient soundman, the main complaint was the quality of what came out of the speakers, not the quality of what was being put into them. I stood downstairs across from the stage for Blitzen Trapper’s entertaining opening set and watched most of the I&W concert from the balcony with the swaying, less claustrophobic masses, and I can say that from where I stood the sound was very much like any other mid-large venue. Enough to hear the music being made as long as everyone around you wasn’t yapping away. I chalk any complaints about Terminal 5 up to the fact that New Yorkers tend to prattle on constantly, even when it’s not welcome, and especially during concerts.
When all was said and done, and with promises of a not-too-distant return, the Beams devolved from the complexity of Iron & Wine into their most natural selves. Standing at the microphones, Sam with guitar in hand, they somberly and evocatively sang a characteristically wispy “The Trapeze Swinger,” and left the noisy crowd in silenced awe.