Iron and Wine

by Timothy G. Merello

13 May 2005


Iron and Wine

Iron and Wine, at Chicago’s House of Blues? Yes, I found it incongruous as well. I rarely venture forth to said venue, as there is something sterile and faux about their manufactured and manipulated folklore. Thus it speaks to the power of a band, or a man if you view Sam Beam as Iron and Wine, to pull me down to the crossroads of shtick and gimmick.

Iron and Wine

20 Apr 2005: House of Blues — Chicago

From the opening number “Jezebel”, with Beam’s voice hushed and lilting as it glided across the dreamy rhythms of a glistening acoustic guitar alongside Patrick McKinney’s plinking banjo, the crowd realized that here lay the real heart and soul of American roots and folk music. Beam’s southern, gothic murder ballads, delta blues boogies, and countrified waltzes and weepers are no pilfered and purloined pieces but heartfelt transcriptions of the whisper, buzz, and howl of the human comedy, divine or damaged.

Clearly Beam is a gifted songwriter and storyteller, a word puzzler and preacher of poetic parables and hymns. I imagine him spending his endless numbered days drunk on bougainvillea blooms writing, spinning poignant tales filled with simile, metaphor, alliteration, and assonance as apt as any poet or novelist.

Adding to the magic of his words, Beam weaves in musical melodies and rhythms of a drowsy beauty. Tonight at the House of Blues, Iron and Wine’s softly strummed campfire lullabies found a startling connectivity for the audience. Rare is the Chicago rock show where the sea of attendees doesn’t spend the night nattering away to their friends and neighbors, creating an annoying buzz. Beam held the audience to a respectful, captivated silence with songs like the poignant “Naked As We Came”, layering it with sparse but sweet acoustic guitar solos and trilling notes. Here Beam’s lyrical lilt spoke softly of the arc of love as he confessed, “I’ll keep stealing, breathing her/ birds are leaving over autumn’s ending/ one of us will die inside these arms/ eyes wide open, naked as we came.”

Another moment of quiet contemplation was the loping and skipping “Bird Stealing Bread”. Beam’s cracked, broken voice matched the ragged but lonesome twang of McKinney’s steel guitar. Sister Sarah Beam added honeyed vocal harmonies to this pleading tale of love.

Iron and Wine’s greatest success is crafting music dusty with the sound of old folk, Appalachian hollers, and the devil’s downhome blues while also instilling a timeless, accessible sense. Take “Cinder and Smoke”, for example, as it turns on a honky-tonk banjo pluck and Beam’s winsome guitar picking peppers it with a funky, almost blue-beat, ska groove. A sketch of a burning farmhouse is captured by Beam’s painterly detail as he demands, “Give me your hand/ your mother is drunk as all the firemen shake/ a photo from father’s arms/ cinder and smoke you’ll ask me to pray for rain, / with ash in your mouth/ you’ll ask it to burn again.” Like the imagery the music and melody smoldered with a smoky vibe as the song wound to its close with a soft tom-tom drumbeat, maraca shake, and the brilliantly nuanced vocal chants of Sam and Sarah Beams’ “Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi.” The audience’s roar at the song’s completion gave proof to the pure genius of the preceding four minutes.

Though Iron and Wine’s songs sometimes seem to be spun from the same swirling acoustic melodies and deft musical timbre, they are each achingly and uniquely nuanced. Beam himself joked from the stage as he began one song with his delicate guitar strum, “what are you guys clapping at? You don’t know what song I’m going to play, they all start like this.”

Here is Iron and Wine’s success: creating countless gems, each more resonant and wonderful then the next. How could you pick a highlight, whether it be the bluesy ballad of “Teeth in the Grass”, the romp and stomp of his new anthem “Woman King” or the unsuspected but spot-on take of The Slickers reggae classic “Johnny Too Bad”? Iron and Wine took the gangster cool of this Jamaican gem and spliced it into a bottleneck blues inflected, western gunfight ballad.

With hardly a misstep, Iron and Wine gave a performance of memorable proportions decanted with plucky banjo, weeping violins, twanging guitars, rumbling percussion, and Beam’s lyrical tone poems sung in dulcet sotto voce. Like the shimmering glow of the northern lights; sparkling and radiant, a sight ever to be cherished and treasured.

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