Sam Beam is the musical incarnation of my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence. He would turn up for class wearing flares, a huge moustache his badge of rebellion. We’d sit in a circle while he strummed his acoustic guitar, singing “Love Potion Number Nine” or some other hippie relic. Although the whole scene was incredibly daggy, he’d occasionally surprise us by whipping out some surprisingly cool tunes, something to “reach out to the kids.” Maybe he’d play the latest chart-topper, or the theme to Astro Boy. Whatever it was, there was always a sense that the whole thing was a little bit forced.
Which is kind of how this Iron & Wine show felt. Having last seen them perform at the height of their OC-inspired success, I expected another two-hour dose of gently lilting folk tunes with keen and often slyly observational lyrics, augmented by plenty of facial hair. Which is pretty much how things began. Beam arrived on stage alone with his guitar and starting strumming away, part mumbling, part singing his homespun tunes. Shortly thereafter, his sister Sarah appeared, as if from nowhere, and provided suitably harmonious backing vocals on songs like “The Trapeze Swinger”. Things continued this way for a couple more tracks, with the odd extra band member appearing now and then to join the melodious fray. What happened next, however, took me by surprise.
11 Mar 2008: Manning Bar Sydney, AUS
Unlike a proper music critic, or even a half-decent one, I hadn’t heard the group’s latest, The Shepherd’s Dog, so I didn’t know what to expect. Before I realised what was happening, an electric dulcimer had made its way onto the stage, the guitars had been plugged in and amped, and we were off into a psychedelic freak-out the likes of which hadn’t been seen around here since…well, since forever.
It turns out Iron & Wine can rock out with the best of them: the force of it almost knocked me out. Even amped up, the structure remained the same, with bittersweet lyrics and folksy chord progressions propelling the music. But was that a wah-wah pedal? And is that really an electric dulcimer? Who knew such a thing existed?
Which is also why this gig reminded me of Mr. Lawrence. It seemed as though Beam, unable to shake his background as a film-school lecturer, was demonstrating the evolutionary arc of contemporary rock, from folk to freak-out. The political outlook of some of his newer songs does nothing to dispel this notion, and it’s the closest I’ll probably ever come to experiencing the ’60s. When he started jamming, I half-expected someone to start screaming “Judas!”, but I guess they’d all done their homework and listened to the album first.
In hindsight, I’m glad I hadn’t. Because sometimes I feel that the music Iron & Wine make has the slightest hint of contrivance. This doesn’t take away from the raw beauty of the songs, nor from the sharply observant nature of Beam’s lyrics, but it does sometimes make it hard for me to just enjoy it. I find myself keenly aware of the fact that I’m watching a performance, and therefore find it hard to give myself over to the music, to ignore that little voice that says, just as you are about to start swaying along, “Hmmm. I don’t think so.”
Essentially, this small scepticism is what stops me from becoming a genuine Iron & Wine fan. I want to like Beam’s music, I really do. If one of his songs comes on the radio, I won’t turn it off; I may even hum along. But I can’t see myself actively seeking out his music, let alone buying an Iron & Wine album. That I turned up to this show having heard not a note of the artist’s most recent release, is a case in point. Even though it made many of last year’s Top Album lists, I’d mentally discarded it automatically.
It’s not fair, I know. I should be more musically open-minded. On that note, what was great about the show was its consistency. Iron & Wine serve up a constant stream of above-average, if not awe-inspiring, songs. Even at their rockingest you never got the urge to bang your head, but rather sway gently from side to side. There’s no doubting the inherent beauty in Beam’s songcraft; I just sometimes doubt the passion.
After a while we got tired of standing and snuck out to the balcony for a smoke. Sitting out in the evening breeze, just talking and smoking, the music took on another dimension. I was enjoying the show more from this distance than I had when watching from near the stage. It occurred to me that the secret to Iron & Wine is that it’s deliberately meant as background music, as a soundtrack to everyday life. Maybe this is another way that Beam’s work as a musician is linked to his former life as a film-school teacher. The man can’t help making tracks that are destined to accompany a tawdry love scene in some tepid romantic movie of the future.