As we look back, Sam Beam might end up being the quintessential artist of US culture’s waning fascination with irony. With song lyrics full of meaning and allusion, onstage he is relegated to making self-effacing jokes with the underlying message being, “I want you to take me seriously, but I’m pretty sure that’s not possible.” His solo acoustic concerts can come off as a combination of stand-up comedy and tear-jerking maudlin songwriting.
His recent albums have also been an example of this inability to bare his soul to us. Starting out as all-acoustic demos recorded on a cassette-based multitrack recorder (2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle), his albums now incorporate full bands and the occasional drum machine rhythm section, effectively covering up the poetic wordplay and raw emotion of Beam’s words. When it comes to a singer/songwriter covering up the best trait of his or her music, the lyrics, it is tantamount to heresy.
In the past, someone like Sam Beam would be singing us his vision of the world and not apologizing for it. John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and of course Bob Dylan, weren’t winking at us while playing their songs. Perhaps that’s why recent quasi-folks singers like Jake Bugg and The Tallest Man On Earth sound so refreshing when they debut; their words aren’t hidden under instrumentation.
This contrast became obvious when Sam Beam played a small, private show on April 5th in Los Angeles for the supporters of taste-making radio station KCRW. I had listened to an advanced copy of his newest album, Ghost on Ghost, and was decidedly unimpressed – I didn’t need more easy listening in my life. However, as Beam took the stage with his guitar, unencumbered by a band, the songs he played from that album came alive. The music was paired down to the essence of what made people connect with him in the first place: his voice and an acoustic guitar.
Glen Hansard was the other act on the bill that night. Like the moments prior to a Super Bowl kickoff, their shared manager, Howard Greynolds, had flipped a coin to see who would go first. Hansard lost, but when he had his turn on stage, he and his Willy Nelson-esque, broken down guitar belted out a few impassioned songs until he broke a string. This prompted Greynolds to come out on stage and help him change it while Hansard told a story about being kidnapped from an Los Angeles restaurant bathroom by Marilyn Manson. According to Hansard, Manson has a deep kinship with his Irish roots.
The concert was extraordinary because not only did KCRW not record any of it, they asked that the audience refrain from using their cell phones in any manner during the performance, and the audience actually complied. This environment had a surprising effect: there were no distractions. No camera people running around, no one taking cell phone pictures, and no text messages on bright screens. The people in the room were intent on one thing – listening to the music. I had forgotten what it was like to have that experience at a concert. It made certain moments in the show unforgettable and reminded me of the divide in our attention that technology is responsible for.
One of those moments that I won’t forget was Beam singing his song “Tree by the River”. The song was electrifying. I walked away that night thinking it was a new song and that I’d like to buy the record it was on. After some research, it turns out that it had been on 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, an album I had been given and had listened to several times. The song as recorded on the album was a pablum, buried underneath needless instrumentation whereas the live version had been an emotional hailstorm.
Besides the Hansard-led raucous sing-along encore of the 1954 Irish-standard “The Auld Triangle” (see if you can spot a young Bono in this YouTube version) the highlight of the evening was a duet by Beam and Hansard that did not leave a dry eye in the house. “Debris” is one of those lost songs that was not commercial enough to be a hit, but those who have heard it won’t soon forget. It’s a love song to a father from a son and encapsulates, as well as any great poem, what it feels like to leave innocence behind.
Despite repeated encores by Beam and Hansard, no one wanted the show to end. Because of turning into a late-night dance club the venue, The Sayers Club had a strict time limit on the show. Like Cinderella waking from the dream of a perfect night, we wandered out onto the street from our nostalgic womb, wishing that the world could still be like that.
Glen Hansard and Sam Beam