Come hell or high water, I was not going to miss the Iron and Wine show I'd had a ticket for months in advance. Only being recently revived, my energy was at low ebb, but I still managed to get into the pit at The Wiltern and joined other sitters on the floor for the hour long wait till the first band would take the stage. This being the fourth time seeing this band, I've come to value the importance of getting as close as possible. Sam Beam has such a warm and winning personality, with an easy understated humor, that to be up close is to feel like an audience of one with all the artist's energy focused on you. Thanks to Dustin Downing at Chinashop for the Iron and Wine photos.
With their very first song The Low Anthem made you feel the wait was worth it. The four musicians employed an unusual assortment of instruments from the harmonium to a table with flat bells that were stroked by a bow, and each performer has a strong and distinctive voice making for one of the most striking vocal groups I've heard in a while. They play a distinctive chamber/folk that owes as much to classical music as it does to indie rock, with an ambient, environmental quality that resembles a film soundtrack. When all four gathered around one microphone at the edge of the stage and sang a cappella, everyone held their breath as time seemed to stop.
They seem to favor a cross between Appalachian folk with a down-home stomp, and English folk ballads of an earlier century, making an interesting hybrid, reminiscent of Breathe Owl Breathe, or even Fleet Foxes. Currently a band of four, Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, Jocie Adams, Mat Davidson, The Low Anthem (at right) mention some of the amazing instruments they're touring with on their myspace page including a gut-strung parlor axe, a set of crotales (whatever they are) and 1 rusty saw. Judging from the way they all traded off instruments, they derive great joy from what they're doing. I picked up their CD,Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, over the weekend to more easily appreciate songs like "To The Ghosts Who Write History Books" and "To Ohio". Fine writing and a great live band.
Iron and Wine began with with two female back up singers, a keyboardist and a mandolin player augmenting Sam Beam on guitar and astonishing lead vocal. An Iron and Wine concert is like listening to a sung poetry reading without any stuffy, high-mindedness, Sam Beam's lyrics are refreshingly everyday, dealing with a mix of immediate concerns and classic literary allusions. Ironically a friend asked me, after hearing some of their music on KCRW, if they were a Christian rock band, what with all the religious imagery. I was glad I've read enough interviews with Sam Beam to understand that, as an agnostic, he only uses the religious references as literary shortcuts, to get to the heart of a story since Bible stories are somewhat universally understood. The first six or so songs, which included "Naked As We Came" and "Love And Some Verses" were played in a fairly acoustic style, lulling the listener into a delicate reverie, rich with the images his deep and sometimes dark lyrics convey.
After that he was joined by six other players, including a brass section, to become a richly orchestrated eleven musicians. Many familiar songs from the past were given fresh arrangements, like "Teeth In The Grass" and "House By The Sea", which breathed new life into them. But they really tore into the new material from his first album for Warner Bros., Kiss Each Other Clean, amping up the rock and roll aspect and delivering blistering performances of "Tree By The River", "Rabbit Will Run" and others, which made the album versions sound tame.
Beam showed no exhaustion, even though this was his third show in town in as many days, if you count the full house at Amoeba on Monday night, which I tried, but couldn't get near. Gifted with one of the easiest, most natural sounding falsettos I've ever heard, with no sense of stress or strain, his voice is far more varied than his recordings would lead you to believe. He was superbly complimented by his back up singers, who seem to sing in the same tonal range. All in all, it was an evening of astonishingly beautiful music leaving each audience member feeling like they'd been the recipient of a deeply personal and heartfelt gift.