My wife converted to the cult of Iron & Wine not too long after we started dating. It was understandable; underneath the coating of terribly outdated pop-rock outfits was a folk-rock lover just waiting to burst out. Her love of Sam Beam’s noble prose is borderline obsessive, but it’s to be expected. My own love of Iron & Wine started not long after the release of Our Endless Numbered Days, and grew stronger with every release. In hindsight, the majesty of Our Endless Numbered Days feels intensely insular, whereas everything that followed was too grand to be kept back; as though the impact of his own life meant that he had to make his own art bigger to fit his own frame.
After Kelly’s obsession began, I tracked down a few live recordings, and gave her the Record Store Day release, Norfolk, as a Christmas gift. It’s an older recording (the recording dates back to 2005, just before the Woman King EP was released. It served not only as a record of a musician who was born for the stage, but of a musician that wasn’t content with playing the song exactly like it sounds on the record. The best example of which is his re-working of “Sunset Soon Forgotten,” which is transformed from a lilting lullaby, to a murky and grand ballad, brimming with minor chords and a sense of dread.
Since then, his desire to give the audience something different has taking a turn for the impressive, but strange. Folk lovers, take note: the Iron & Wine live experience is not a love-in. I knew something was going to be different from the opening of Kiss Each Other Clean centerpiece “Rabbit Will Run,” which took on a new life on stage. Truly the only songs that resemble their recorded selves are those on Kiss Each Other Clean; the others have been resurrected not as folk jams, but straight-up jam sessions; the 5-minute “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” from The Shepherd’s Dog became an exercise in beastly Hendrix-esque guitar-scapes, creating a dizzying effect. The peaceful and heartbreaking “Cinder and Smoke,” a favorite of mine from Our Endless Numbered Days, became another monstrous tower of sound, looming over everything gorgeously.* Sam Beam commented on the change in direction a few songs in: “You may have noticed, we like to fuck with things a lot. We just wanna keep things interesting, and give you something you don’t have at home!”
Make absolutely no mistake: the change in atmosphere in every song is awe-inspiring. Near the end, the band performed an epic medley of “House By The Sea”/”Woman King”/”Fever Dream,” which was one of the best things I’ve seen performed live. Certain songs, such as “Free Until They Cut Me Down,” however, lost some of their magic in the conversion process, being that he took away from the simple beauty of a song, thus tampering with the perfection he had already achieved. He did throw the audience a bone, though: he came back for a single-song encore, a heartbreaking a capella rendition of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” which more than made up for any misplaced experimentation over the course of the evening.
My wife walked away from the experience disappointed. “I’ll be happy when it’s just him and his guitar again,” she told me on the walk to catch a train home. But, at this point, can you really go back? Sam Beam is the rare musician who manages to improve and change with every recording, and it’s because he as been willing to push his own boundaries every time he enters the studio. Now, armed with two drummers, a backup guitarist, a bassist, a keyboard player, a horn section, and three backup singers, he’s finally managing to express some of the wonder that his music has always been capable of, but is just now able to capture. He has a rare gift, and it’s wonderful to see him use it, face to face.
*Hyperbole included in cover charge.
Rabbit Will Run
God Made The Automobile
Freedom Hangs Like Heaven
Summer in Savannah
Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)
Walking Far From Home
Cinder and Smoke
Big Burned Hand
Arms of a Thief
The Devil Never Sleeps
Free Until They Cut Me Down
House By The Sea
Boy With A Coin
Tree By The River
American Mouth, Flightless Bird