“It’s New Year’s Eve/…Back home the hammer always has to fall/cross is barely hanging on the wall/some day I know you’ll never leave me/but we’re far from the hard light tonight.”
Sam Beam, the man behind the name Iron & Wine, started off his set at First Avenue, presented by 89.3 The Current, with that darkish lounger, “The Desert Babbler.”
Beginning with a forced perspective stirred up the ether of memory as Iron & Wine has done for so long, but when the night ended I left only with a vaguely good feeling, like I’d seen some talented musicians, but couldn’t remember a thing about them.
It began with Widowspeak, a Brooklyn quartet of longhaired shoegazers, who opened in a haze that hung around them like a halo of hookah smoke, colored magenta and cerulean by stage lights. In their bio they brag—I kid you not—that Widowspeak has been praised for “its reverential spaciousness.” They could be the house band for an indie opium den called Nirvana Was So 90s.
Pretension aside, the three others performers in Widowspeak followed singer/rhythm guitarist Molly Hamilton’s droning chord progressions and wispy vocals the entire thirty minute set, only occasionally building to something bigger, something reminiscent of the horse monster hooking a fury claw around your ankle, dragging you deeper. It pains me every time a band falls so neatly into a stereotype without offering something more remarkable with their obvious talent and dedication. From there it seemed Iron & Wine could only improve the night.
Sam Beam came out with a backing band of 12, including singers, strings, woodwinds, and brass, as if he were some white, bearded Duke Ellington. That backing crew is a part of Iron & Wine’s new blue-eyed soul sound, all pale and awkward, looking like Beam recruited them from a Savannah, Georgia private school. Sam Beam’s Traveling Wunderkammer or something. But they all could play—particularly the horns when they were properly miced.
In a jacket, with longer sweptback hair and beard, Beam reminded me of Mr. Rosso, the hippie turned guidance counselor on the exceptional television show Freaks and Geeks. Beam has taken on the role as a straighter bandleader, while borrowing from even more music of the past.
Despite the Motown infusion, Iron & Wine remains a Southern band. There are plenty of moments like the Jerry Lee Lewis piano in “Kingdom of the Animals,” as well as the new, slow and twisting “The Waves of Galveston” that sounds like something James Taylor would write after a year in Brownsville, Texas along the Mexico border.
Perhaps improbably, Beam is now positioned as a contemporary of Justin Timberlake, another Southern boy playing blue-eyed soul. Take Timberlake’s magnetic performance of “Mirrors” on Saturday Night Live while supporting his very good, but slightly disappointing, album The 20/20 Experience.
Timberlake and his band The Tennessee Kids have built their songs and perform to be the night’s main event and most memorable part of an evening on the town. That’s where Beam and his band fall short. By seriously lacking dynamics and having constructed songs standing too hesitantly with feet in multiple sonic camps, the new Iron & Wine seems content to play in the background while their audience eats dinner.
Before any sympathizers start crying about different styles and unfair comparisons—and I’ve generally been a Beam fan—anyone at the show night needs to think about what its transcendent moments were or was “the whole thing just really nice.”
Some fans were restless, though. Particularly the late-twenties, early-thirties crowd standing around me who came to Iron & Wine with their 2004 Pitchfork-touted album Our Endless Numbered Days. Beam appeased them in the middle, as he’s made a habit on tour, casting his band backstage and fielding democratic (read: shouted) song requests from the audience. I’m sure he feels that same pull when it’s just him and a notebook or him and the mixing board—though I also worry he doesn’t know how not to.
It’s easy to get comfortable when writing. I assume this recent move by Beam to stir soul into Iron & Wine was originally intended to mix it up, but it all still sounds the same. Many of the cuts on the new Ghost on Ghost are like remixes, old songs with new full backing band action! And how often will we have the same tropes in songs, particularly the elemental: rivers, the world, hands, memories, Christian iconography, metal, trees (especially being between them)?
What I realized last night, while I was just trying to keep my legs awake and I didn’t even feel like grabbing another Nordeast: I’m tired of Iron & Wine’s playing to nostalgia. At some point Beam and his posse need to look forward and try leading.
“The Desert Babbler”
“Kingdom of the Animals”
“Tree by the River”
“Sixteen, Maybe Less”
“Belated Promise Ring”
“Baby Center Stage”
“Monkeys Uptown” (solo w/strings)
“Such Great Heights” (Postal Service cover) (solo w/strings)
“Boy With a Coin” (solo)
“Upward Over the Mountain” (solo)
“Resurrection Fern” (solo)
“The Wave of Galveston” (new) (solo)
“Caught in the Briars”
“Sundown (Back in the Briars)”
“Grace for Saints and Ramblers”
“Low Light Buddy of Mine”
“Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me”
“Love Vigilantes” (New Order cover)