I have a tendency to over-romanticize Iron & Wine. On several mind-numbing, heartbreaking, stomach-churning occasions I’ve found myself looping “Trapeze Swinger” and “Resurrection Fern” to infinity; searching for a spiritual companion or just looking to get lost. Impartiality can quickly cede to reverence as words like “whispery mystic” tumble throughout my head. Even having seen Sam Beam & company once before at my alma mater, I could hardly steal myself from flitting into fervent joy as the twelve piece band began kicking up dust for Ghost on Ghost track “Desert Babbler”.
The band was simultaneously the greatest asset and impediment to Beam’s collection of ornate material. The horn section spun “Carousel” into elegiac territory; haunting Beam’s journey home. Elsewhere, on-point drum fills and bucolic strings lent Kiss Each Other Clean cut “Tree by the River” a bounce the lackadaisical original only daydreamed of. “Low Light Buddy of Mine”s piano and rocksteady drum suspended the song in a zombified lurch. Here Beam’s soft recollections of “new fruit humming in the old fruit tree” hemmed closer to “Strange Fruit” than any Sunday afternoon love song. “Late into the Night” imagined a Motown where white boy jazz bands are common place and Marvin Gaye carried dog-eared poet readers. And “Caught in the Briars” countryside gait steadily trod into Ornette Coleman caterwauling, every implement of the band attempting to outdo one another.
While the newer material, birthed in a raucous large-scale setting, fared uniformly well the “old s**t” as Beam called it was more of a gamble. Beam’s inclusion of horns can border on obtrusive, but the knowing reservation on the heavenly “Passing Afternoon” was a welcome entrant. Tenderly clutching the string section’s hand, “Such Great Heights” traipsed through a field of clover, as the “freckles in our eyes” imagery became Irish balladry. Funereal violins in Shepherd’s Dog closer “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” enjoin Beam to enter into the “soft dark night”.
“Belated Promise Ring” remains a closely kept favorite of mine, a stock example of “fervent” love if there ever was one in the discography. My reaction then to the funky sauntering was equal parts engaged and horrified. The original moved at a steady clip, Beam knowing when to pace himself and ring out every last drop of ethos. In this new incarnation, the lyrics were obscured by the small army of musicians. “Jezebel” ran into a similar wall. The ba-ba-ba vocals while well placed, appended sweet to a bitter Biblical tale. At times the 12-piece proved strength isn’t always in numbers.
“Monkeys Uptown” moved in the other direction reverting to a primal stage. In the moment, Beam was “furiously” fingerpicking guitar, only joined by death waltzing violin. As the song of “never settling down” unspooled, I began to envision Beam’s recent efforts stripped down to their bare essentials. And “barren” is the perfect descriptor of the aforementioned “Resurrection Fern”. The song’s tender embrace “bound in bailing wire” rang out through the theatre; showstopping in its subtlety. At a critical moment, Beam stopped to quip “watch this”, knowing full well the audience was firmly within his cross-hairs.
With every ebb and flow, I remained in focus and expected anything from a surprisingly generous Beam. Nowhere was that generosity on better display than his entrance into “Upward Over the Mountain” after an audience suggestion. The now decade-old song remains a fan favorite, all that was required was a teased opening and the audience was jubilant. I don’t know if my heart’s ever pounded as loudly at a concert as the moment the chords first spilled forth. And as the “birds” of the song took flight, I found myself caught up again. Lost in a land of the strange and familiar.