Iron and Wine – [Live]

Tuesday, 04 December 2007

Almost everything written about Iron and Wine immediately states that it is merely the stage name of one Sam Beam. And although this is true, it is only in part: on November 30th at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, the statement was most certainly more false than true…

Iron and Wine started out in 2002 as the bedroom musical project of a cinematography professor. Channeling the spirit of Nick Drake mixed with romantic notions of the Deep South, Sam Beam created hushed melodies of broken beauty through the first few years and two LPs of his career. However, his sound has drastically progressed in recent years, proving him one of the most inventive sounds in independent folk music today. Iron and Wine’s most recent album, The Shepherd’s Dog, shows Beam expanding immensely beyond the stifling singer/songwriter style and into a bolder and more full-ranged sound. That full sound that permeated the evening's performance. That is to say, those expecting a man, a stool and an acoustic were sorely disappointed. In its place was an eight-piece band that successfully recreated the intricacies of Beam’s newly developed sound as well as provided updated and reworked versions of early favorites.

The rather unimpressive opening act, Califone, played a modest set of just over a half an hour, but the show truly started when Beam and his crew promptly entered the stage at 9 PM. Despite the size of the venue and his newfound fame, Beam did not show an ounce of pretense from start to finish: he even chose to tune all his own instruments. Furthermore, for the entire set, there was no stage banter: simply a modest, bearded man that spoke as softly as he sang, constantly thanking the near capacity audience for their adoration. And the adoration was well warranted, as the talent of the performers was supreme—not a single sore note was heard throughout the near two-hour set. Choosing to focus heavily on new material, the band opened with a (dare I say) raucous version of "Lovesong of the Buzzard," featuring an electric guitar, xylophone and even a ragtime-esque piano. The energy of this opening carried throughout the show with strong performances of "House by the Sea"—which featured a flanged guitar—and the strong, persistent afro-bass line of "Wolves" that rolled with Beam’s marvelous singing. Perhaps the greatest surprise was that even when the band was sounding downright loud, Beam’s whispered, pillow-talk singing voice was maintained, sounding as gentle live as on any of his recordings.
Despite the heavy support for the new album, the evening’s set list offered songs from all of Iron and Wine’s discography, albeit with full reworkings. The most eloquent update was a version of "Upward Over the Mountain." Originally sparse and slowly winding, Friday’s version was electric with a two-step tribal beat that made the tune almost unrecognizable. The full overhaul was also applied to "Cinder and Smoke" and "Woman King." Luckily, these new versions didn't seem like gimmicks; rather, they were fully developed songs that (love it or hate it) showed that Beam has fully left behind his characterizing lo-fi sound and is now squarely looking into depths of progressive folk.

A pleasant surprise came in the form of an encore in which Beam returned on stage with only an acoustic guitar and a female backup singer to perform his near 9-minute masterpiece, "The Trapeze Swinger." This offered a taste of what early fans have been surely missing. The performance was soft and tangible with Beam strumming his guitar so gently it was nearly acappella. This exposition of past sounds juxtaposed so carefully within the scope of the rest of the night’s performance proved a wonderful way to end the show, and as the crowd wondered forth into the night nothing but praise could be heard.

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