You have to give Sam Beam credit for not being a one-trick pony. The South Carolina singer/songwriter likes variety in his life and is not afraid to take it on the road. His band Iron & Wine – which sometimes includes actual band members and other times includes just him – have released several well-received and well-reviewed albums starting with 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, which was mostly Beam’s lyrics and instrumentation. He has had songs in TV shows and movies, “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” probably being the most widely known as it played during the end credits of Twilight. He has collaborated with the likes of Calexico and Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell. So his making a duets album with Jesca Hoop didn’t come as a surprise.
Currently on tour together, their performance at New Orleans’ Civic Theatre last week was a splendid antipodean to the Steel Panther concert a few minutes away. Whereas the spandexed rockers were cutting up and having a wild ride of a night, the Civic hosted one of the best singer/songwriters of this generation, evoking a more cerebral take on love and life and the Bee Gees.
Bee Gees? Yes, it seems that Beam and Hoop, a California singer/songwriter who has had quite an eclectic musical adventure herself, took the Bee Gees original song “Islands In The Stream” that Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton took to #1 in 1983, erased all the perkiness and rainbows and colored it in shades of black and grey. It has become almost a requiem, like Venus spinning away from the sun in a solitary act of sadness. It is heartbreaking and enchanting all in one breath.
But it is still the words of Beam that captures the most attention – that and his distinctive voice that echoes like almost no one else singing songs today. With their setlist almost entirely made up of songs from their new Love Letter For Fire album, they for the most part stuck pretty close to the sounds and arrangements they created there. Lit by at least fifty table lamps of various sizes encircling them onstage, they weave in and out of songs like “Valley Clouds,” “Bright Lights & Goodbyes,” “We Two Are A Moon” and the exceptional “Sailor To Siren,” which brought the audience to their feet in appreciation.
Going lightly on the Iron & Wine compositions, Beam said that the songs from their individual catalogs were picked by the other. Hoop chose “Belated Promise Ring” and “Resurrection Fern,” while Beam wanted “City Bird” – “one of the first ones I heard and it blew me away” – and “Hunting My Dress.” But it was Hoop’s unreleased “Pegasi” that was perhaps the most magical tune of the show.
Marlon Williams, a young singer/songwriter from New Zealand with a hankering for bluegrass, opened for Beam and Hoop, playing most of his set with just an acoustic guitar, a stand-up bass player named Ben & a Roy Orbison warble. “I think I’m having the most enjoyable night of the tour,” he said with a smile following his song “Come To Me.”
The repartee between Beam and Hoop was priceless, like young lovers flirting with silly jabs at each other, as was the connection Beam has with his audience, bouncing quick-witted comebacks to any fan who felt the need to speak to Beam between songs. His sharp sense of humor is a mainstay for any Beam/Iron & Wine show. It breaks down the barrier between artist and admirer, although I think it’s just part of Beam’s personality to have some fun with the people who choose his music over other, more popular acts. When introducing a song he thought they may not be familiar with, he comforted them with the knowledge that, “It won’t last long.” And when appreciative claps sounded too regimented he snarked, with a smile, “I like tight succinct clapping sections.” Hoop jumped in easily with this, one time calling him, playfully but straight-faced, “an asshole,” when telling the story of how they began their collaborating. Summed up Beam, “It was the discovery of what we could do together” that was exciting to them.
Ending their night with the Iron & Wine song “Carousel” was a big thumbs up. If you’re looking for something more nourishing than a candy bar band on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t go wrong feeding your craving with these guys instead.