If you only know Iron & Wine as a man who stands alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, you are way out-of-date, my friend. Welcome to Iron & Wine the band. Although Iron & Wine has always been pretty much Sam Beam, his guitar and his words, over the years his lucidity has taken on an ever-growing, ever-expanding musical tapestry. His world now swirls in colorful antidotes, jazzified horns and harmonies. It has built into a harvest of excellence that maybe fair-weather fans never saw coming. If you haven’t tasted from Sam’s brew lately, it’s time you found a big mug.
First of all, the Tabernacle reeks of ambience: from the squeaky wooden floors to the acoustics in the theater, rockers have tortured the stage with their raucous behavior while singer-songwriters have caressed the silence with eloquent voices. And the theater still stands strong, a big red brick homage to a time when the world was not so chaotic, a stone’s throw from a giant ferris wheel and high rise hotels. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that Beam would bring his wit and wisdom and nice suit to a place like this to wind up a tour for Iron & Wine’s fifth studio album, Ghost On Ghost, which had been released back in April of this year.
Beam is definitely a product of his southern upbringing. It shows in his lyrics, his guitar style, his witticisms and his beard. He has a politeness about him that can sometimes throw a new listener off-guard when he utters a harsh statement or a naughty word. But they come not as a modern day snarky term of endearment but as natural territorial pissings of frustration; as Beam’s voice raises, so does the temperature in the room. He is legit with his thoughts, his feelings, his decisions made both from being backed into a corner and elongated study. When you hear him sing, you hear his world as he knows and has experienced it. And at the Tabernacle, he took us on a tour of his psyche-inflected past, present and future.
After telling the crowd that he was going to “tease them a lot” over the course of the evening, he said it was “a dream come true” to play the Tabernacle and began with “Desert Babbler” from Ghost on Ghost. With “Carousel,” a song from the third album, The Shepherd’s Dog, and originally a trippy dreamy little piece, it became more of a ‘70’s jazz in the park number. And after a few “way different,” as I heard someone say, versions of “Passing Afternon” and “Belated Promise Ring,” where the arrangements were a bit more drawn out and fuller than their quieter originals, “Baby Center Stage” was “some big music” with a big “Amen” shouted from the crowd. “Monkeys Uptown” contained the aforementioned curse word that Beam said “seemed right at the time” and explained to a younger member of the audience he might want to cover his ears and watch for the “international symbol the song is over.”
The folksy “Such Great Heights,” brought about lots of cheers and a repartee with the audience, culminating in Beam joking, “Look man, this is my show – I get enough of that from my wife when I’m home.” With the string section exiting, Beam spent the next several songs taking requests – “What do you guys feel like hearing?” – starting with a darker “Fever Dream” and containing an extra verse not on the original recording; followed by an excellent “Resurrection Fern” in a lovely almost lonely hush. When a man kept hollering out at one point, Beam proclaimed that he was “going to miss all my hot licks” if he kept it up.
The band returned after Beam thanked everyone for “playing the Iron & Wine buffet” and kicked into the blended “Caught In The Briars”/”Back In The Briars,” both from Ghost On Ghost. A faster “Jezebel,” some Motown flavored “Lean To The Light,” a spirited “Singers & The Endless Song,” a definite highlight of the night all the way around, and an almost whispered “Flightless American Bird,” aka the song from Twilight.
After twenty-three songs amidst endless song request shout outs from fans, amusing one-liners from Beam – “You like that chord? What about this one? I can’t play that game too long cause I only know so many chords” and after a slight wrong key misstep, “I’m not afraid to make a total ass of myself in front of strangers. I do it cause I love you” – “Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever.” Bathed in a red light, horns on overdrive, he kicked out “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me” in a fury of jazz hysteria. Excellent.
Alas, walking out alone for a quiet encore dedicated to his band, he sang a hushed “Dead Man’s Will” and said goodnight to an audience who wished he would sing all night. Three hours just wasn’t enough.