The Fillmore Miami Beach
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Better than: Cheap beer chilled in the river and chugged at noon.
Unlike weak revivalists, fourth-generation freaky folks, and other bullshitters, Sam Beam's version of Americana has never lapsed into studied "authenticity" or bouts of irony.
An Iron and Wine tune is always deeply lived, fully imagined, and impeccably crafted. This purity is the thing that's generally put him ahead of most current singer-songwriter types. They seem to be faking it. He never does.
And last night at 8:58 p.m., Beam walked out alone onto the Fillmore's large, low stage in a wrinkled suit and a black shirt open at the collar, radiating regal realness. His yellow-blond beard and hair was a little less unkempt than usual. But he still looked like an off-duty Civil War reenactor.
Being a former Dade County resident and ex-UM film professor, the 36 year old smirked at the crowd before opening with a mini-monologue about Miami: "It's so good to be back. I can't tell you how much I missed the water and the Cuban food ... This is actually the first day I've set foot in Miami proper since I left. It's been a great day."
Amid bongos, three guitars, a drum kit, and a Korg piano, all arranged in a pseudo-ceremonial circle around an Asian rug, Beam stood center-stage and slipped into an almost entirely acappella version of "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" off Iron and Wine's last studio album, 2007's The Shepherd's Dog. Time to time, he'd let his fingers brush or barely pluck the guitar strings. But mostly, the song soared on the man's singing -- complex, strong, and shaded with dark emotions.
The next two songs also held fast to acoustic axe and voice. And nothing else. There was the six-minute "Upward Over the Moutain," Beam's lament for mothers and sons and inevitable splits: "Mother don't worry, she's got a garden we're planting together ... Sons are like birds, flying always over the mountain." And then he followed up with his magnum opus, "The Trapeze Swinger," a piece of songwriting so dense, intricate, and layered that it sounds like Beam's got two or three guys hidden behind the curtains helping out with all that fingerpicking.
As with most Iron and Wine, "Swinger" is more than just a masterful study in folk, floating into the now on clouds of rich and cryptic lyrics that casually mix curse words and secret messages: "The pearly gates/Had some eloquent graffiti/Like 'We'll meet again'/And 'Fuck the man'/And 'Tell my mother not to worry'." But this is Iron & Wine at its best, just the direct attack of Beam, his guitar, and a poem. With a full band, the results sometimes become muddled.
After wrapping the acoustic intro, he brought out a few of his players -- two men on banjo and piano, and a lady backup singer -- making his first move and easing the crowd into the fully orchestrated Iron and Wine. Then reaching back again to Shepherd's Dog, Beam and this half-band rambled through "Peace Beneath the City" before swapping banjo for mandolin and trying out a new cut, "Half Moon," off impending full-length album, Kiss Each Other Clean.
Basically, this take of the not-yet-released "Moon" served as a final bridge from classic Iron and Wine to the reinvented Iron and Wine. Like his quiet, contemplative, acoustic pieces, this new one is a cartwheeling ballad, just electrified with doo-wop backing vocals. Closer to the middle-ground of Shepherd's Dog, it was immediately identifiable as the work of Samuel Beam, unlike the synthy '80s world-beat pop that he'd dig into later.
Here the remaining band members (three men Beam's age or slightly older) sat down behind the drums and bongos, and grabbed the bass for three old tunes: "Woman King," "Morning," and "Carousel." Reworked a bit, the first became a swaggering blues cut, split between sweetness and menace. The second veered into a bluegrass wormhole. And the third indulged some violin distortion.
Next, though, Iron and Wine made its first misstep of the night, tripping into adult contemporary territory with a happy rocker attempt at "Love and Some Verses." Admittedly, I'm a little oversensitive to this kind of thing. (Sweet folk-pop played by expert musicians with electric guitars sends me into a hell of a million James Taylors and Don Henleys.) So, rather than a total failure, I'll just say that "Verses" was a slightly unsettling forevision of some unfortunate future where Sam Beam drifts into complacent pop-rock. Yeah, it's an unlikely outcome, but not as impossible as it once seemed.
Thankfully, the band rebounded straight away with its second Around the Well song of the night, "Monkeys Uptown," a slinky, mechanical slice of machine funk. (And no, we're not joking.) While spitting lyrics like "Those monkeys uptown told you not to fuck around ... Never settle down" and once breaking into laughs, Beam tossed off stiff speedy guitar riffs and solos over his band's subdued, late-night, purple boogie. It was weird but good.
The rest of this epic set (18 songs in two hours) traded on old songs filtered through Iron and Wine's ever-developing full-band concept. Two members of opening act Nomo came out to toss sax and trumpet over amped-up Afrobeat of "House By the Sea." There were digital drums, scorched violins, and a speeding jammy climax for "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car." And "Summer in Savannah" fucked around with free jazz for a minute before the sax and trumpet retired for "Innocent Bones."
Smoky, brooding, and toying with gentle drone, "Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)" was the show's last song, drifting through atonal zones and quiet cinematic landscapes. A little past the half point, things slowed close to silence, paused, meandered, and then reunited along a final groove that built and built by degrees until the piano went off the rails and Beam began scratching out jagged micro-solos. Suddenly, the band stalled for the final verse: "The song of the shepherd's dog/A little brown flea in the bottle of oil/For your wooly wild hair/You'll never get him out of there." The room went quiet and Beam said bye, disappearing backstage.
But the crowd wouldn't go home. And a couple of minutes later, Iron and Wine reemerged. Unfortunately, though, Beam and his band chose a third new song, "Biting Your Tail," for the encore. After a perfect closer like "Wolves," this synth-soaked world pop song was a bummer. And worse than "Verses," it didn't just drift into adult contempo. It sunk into giddy '80s world pop. (Think Phil Collins or Lindsey Buckingham.)
Again, though, I'm a little oversensitive. And who knows? Maybe "Tail" will be better on record.
Personal Bias: Beam and his band should experiment. But they'll probably never beat the pared-down perfection of solemn, hushed stuff like "The Trapeze Swinger."
The Crowd: Recovering members of the Woodstock generation, younger granola enthusiasts, 60-something professorial types, suits and their wives, and some of the youngest (11?) hipsters on earth.
Overheard in the Crowd: After Beam gave a shout-out to Churchill's, there was an exchange. "What the fuck is Churchill's?" said Aging Frat Boy #1. "Just some small, smelly, shitty bar," replied Aging Frat Boy #2.
Iron and Wine's Setlist:
-"Flightless Bird, American Mouth"
-"Upward Over the Mountain"
-"The Trapeze Swinger"
-"Peace Beneath the City"
-"Naked As We Came"
-"Love and Some Verses"
-"House By the Sea"
-"Sea and the Rhythm"
-"Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car"
-"My Lady's House"
-"Summer in Savannah"
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-"Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog)"
-"Biting Your Tail"