Last Night: Iron & Wine At Fitzgerald's

Iron & Wine Fitzgerald's November 21, 2010

When Hill Country transplant Sam Beam, who played a sold-out pre-Thanksgiving show at Fitzgerald's Sunday night, was still signed with Sub Pop, the Seattle label's founder Jonathan Poneman wanted to see the South Carolina native cut an epic gatefold-type album - and that's what he got with the 2009's 23-track rarities and oddities collection Around the Well. Now Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, has left Sub Pop for Warner, and is prepping the rich new disc (judging from Sunday's partial preview) Kiss Each Other Clean.

With his signature beard looking brushed and full, Beam came onstage just after his scheduled 9 p.m. start time to an adoring audience that shouted out sartorial compliments while he tuned up his guitar. As an honorary member of the freak-folk society, a brotherhood that includes Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Devendra Banhart, Beam has always balanced his throwback tendencies with a desire to expand his musical vocabulary.

This was evidenced Sunday, in a set that mixed new and old songs, African rhythms and a satisfying handful off his masterful 2007 studio effort, The Shepherd's Dog.

Beam showed himself a still daring performer from the get-go with an a cappella version of "Flightless Bird, American Mouth," a number he said later generally gets a WTF response from rowdier crowds. Hitting mostly sweet, high notes, Beam soon had the warm-spirited crowd eating out of his hand.

Having played before an apparently drunk New Orleans crowd on Saturday, the singer seemed pleased to get down to brass tacks, chuckling when audience members cried out for new, untested material. Before the rest of his touring band joined him, Beam rewarded the rapt crowd with a solo version of "Evening on the Ground (Lilith's Song)" off Woman King, with the kinky lyric "We were born to fuck each other."

With a crackerjack group of musicians featuring several members of Califone, who also played the Kiss Each Other Clean sessions, Beam expanded his take on older songs including "Trapese Swinger" and "Naked as We Came" (which began with an off-key goof before the 6-piece backing outfit kicked into righteous gear) before the band stepped into new territory.

Beam switched guitars, while Califone mando-banjo-guitar player Jim Becker swapped instruments almost as frequently. The expanded, harmonious treatment that arrived with Shepherd's Dog is clearly the signature sound for the live show.

The interplay between Beam and the band was delicate and precise, and veered between almost overly respectful and the lustier, rocking bits. Beam has always been partial to AOR radio hits from the '70s and the multi-part harmonies connected those memories to the present. Such was the mood that when someone shouted out "Freebird" Beam even managed to croak out, "If I leave here tomorrow...."

Then he shut down the silliness: "You have all kinds of ideas down here in Houston. It's like a fucking think tank.... I figure you got the records at home, so we're going to fool around a bit. Try to keep up."

New numbers off the forthcoming KEOC included "Half Moon," and "Monkeys Uptown," a monstrous, fuzzy soul number. The band showed its eclectic depth throughout. At one point, the rhythm section employed electronic drums, and buzzing chill-wave beats, elsewhere Beam tipped his proverbial Stetson to Texas traditions by giving Around the Well single "Morning" a bit of country-western swing.

By the time Iron & Wine rolled up on the oldie but goodie "Cinder and Smoke," the horn players from funky opener Nomo, saxophonist Elliot Bergman and trumpeter Justin Walter, were bringing the soul heat.

When Beam returned for a quick solo encore - "He Lays in the Reins," off 2005 Calexico EP collaboration In the Reins - Aftermath admits we had lost track of 18-19 songs the band had laid down.

Yet, like the rest of the crowd, our appetite was whet, not just to give thanks but for the new album due out in January. Like his "Trapese Swinger," Beam is a fearless player, one who makes us dream of flying.

Personal Bias: Driving across West Texas, southern New Mexico and Arizona with In the Reins on repeat was one of the smartest things we ever did. We played Shepherd's Dog as a lullaby for our daughter.

The Crowd: Well-scrubbed, well-balanced between boys and girls, predominantly Caucasian, mix of yuppies, girlfriends, freshly-minted college grads sprouting early winter facial hair, older Heights hipsters and young romantics, plus aging parents on dates (as evidenced by a request for "Wheels on the Bus").

Overheard In the Crowd: "These preachers commit all kinds of sin, I'm going to have sex in a parking lot."

Random Notebook Dump: People always say that want the new stuff, but then they go crazy for the hits.

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