Photo by Bill Kelly
Before there was Sam Beam-as-Iron & Wine, there was Sam Beam, college professor. It’s hard to imagine Beam as anything but a champion of mellow, gorgeous crooning, but when he arrives on stage there are hints of the heavily-bearded dude who once stood in front of classes and shared insights on the art of filmmaking. He has all the hallmarks of your cool liberal arts professor – the humble hands-in-his-pockets entrance, the ultra-relaxed demeanor, the un-pretentious greeting: “Hey, thanks so much for spending a rainy Sunday with me.”
Your cool liberal arts professor always seemed unassuming, but proceeded to introduce you to something totally profound and occasionally mind-blowing. This is the essence of Iron & Wine – a modest artist with a resonating voice who achieves powerful heights, especially live. Beam’s latest album Ghost on Ghost is his jazziest and most orchestral, so it was no surprise that a 12-piece band filed on stage behind him at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York.
After welcoming his seated audience with copious thanks, Beam and his ensemble started with “New Mexico’s No Breeze,” a very 70s soft-rock tune off the new album that was perfect for a Sunday night. The hallmark Iron & Wine calming effect kicked in immediately. Fans nestled cozily into their seats, many in the balcony section put their feet up, and nearly everyone watched Beam with quiet reverence. The band played through super-lively but smooth takes on a crowd-pleasing mix of songs like “Carousel,” “Grass Widow,” and “Tree by the River.” Until the last couple of albums, most Iron & Wine recordings prioritized the power of the naked voice, but Beam’s vocals pair equally as well with a lush instrumental backdrop.
Fans of Beam’s earlier, minimalistic sound got a treat midway through the evening: a mini solo set that started off with a lullaby-worthy cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” backed by his string trio. But just as quickly as he imparted such quiet intensity upon the crowd, the strings left the stage and Beam switched back into casual mode: “So what did you guys do today? Did you have a pretty good week?” After chatting with the crowd, he asked if there were any songs in particular they wanted to hear.
Beam fielded a cacophony of requests, including “Free Bird” (of which he serenely sang a few verses, then suddenly laughed and said “Nah, I’m just fucking with you.”) But despite his witty banter and self-deprecating jokes about forgetting lyrics, the five-song solo break featured some of the most breathtaking moments of the night, like the gorgeous “Resurrection Fern” and an enthusiastically-requested version of the new song “Joy,” which thrived as a stripped-down live track.
Other songs fared better backed by the full band’s energy. “Into the Briars” ended in a chaotic improv jam, while other Ghost on Ghost standouts like “Grace for Saints and Ramblers” and “The Desert Babbler” – already sonically lush on the album – reached full potential with Beam and friends dancing on stage and playing soulfully. As lovely as Beam’s lone voice is, seeing him perform as a bandleader is a newfound thrill that feels like the beginning of a path to a something special. The quiet solo vs. lively band dichotomy dominated his show – both parts uniquely powerful – and just when things got really intense, he’d stop to joke with the audience. Kind of like that professor with a knack for delivering a crazy, deep lecture and then putting everything in perspective, bringing you back to reality in an instant.
Beam’s most captivating moment occurred when he performed a one-song encore of “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” almost entirely a capella. It’s rare to see a crowd of more than 1,000 people collectively stop texting and talking, but Beam even surpassed that feat: he sang his final song to a room so still and silent that the lack of crowd noise felt surreal – and towards the end – strangely disorienting.