Iron and Wine sounds like whales at 9:30


Iron and Wine
9:30 Club
Washington D.C.
April 22, 2011

In support of recently released studio effort, Kiss Each Other Clean, Iron and Wine played a sold out 9:30 Club on a rainy Friday night.

tla6.jpgProvidence, RI’s The Low Anthem set the tone for the evening with a short but eclectic set that ranged from four-part harmonies on an old-timey microphone and full wood-wind breakdowns to electric rock and roll Americana. Throughout the evening, the four members switched off on a plethora of standard instruments including guitar, harmonica, upright and electric bass and drum kit. Then there were the other instruments; things you don’t typically expect to hear at a show at the 9:30 Club including a pump organ, a saw played with a bow, two clarinets, a French horn, a trumpet, a hammer dulcimer and a banjo…also played with a bow. The set was brought to a close with a familiar yet unique selection in Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.”

But before regrouping around their old-time microphone to sing a simple, and well-orchestrated, take on Cohen, they did something truly bizarre. They played a song arranged on the pump organ with two clarinets and a French horn. Before starting the song, frontman Ben Miller told us that, when instructed, everyone in the audience should take out their cell phones and call the person that they came in with. This might be the first band in history encouraging people to use cell phones during their set. Miller told us that it would only work if we all jumped in. The song was interesting, and as it was nearing its end, Miller walked over to the organ and picked up a second cell phone – his was already in hand – and motioned to the crowd that the time had come. He proceeded to use one phone to call the other and everyone else in the capacity venue did the same. At first there was mostly ringtones and giggling. People were confused, but went along with it. Then a crackle overcame the crowd. Miller was at the mic playing his two phones off of each other and creating what sounded like a cross between a Theremin and a championship whistler. The whole room came alive. It was a great taste of what was to come.

Iron and Wine, the recording and performing name for Sam Beam, took the stage accompanied by a lead guitar player who also covered banjo and mandolin duties, a keyboard/organist, a drummer, a percussionist, a three-part horn section and two female backing vocalists. The band, with several members pulled from musical friend and collaborator Calexico, encircled Beam who stood front and center with a long but neatly trimmed beard and wearing a nice sport coat. The crowd’s love for the man was clear from the outset. At one point, a woman in the balcony yelled out that she wanted to have sex with him. He casually and seamlessly pushed back; tongue fully and completely in cheek, “I totally want to have sex with you too.” He then added, “wait for me outside.”

iaw1.jpgThe show opened with Beam on acoustic on a track from the aforementioned release, “Me and Lazarus,” and 2004’s “Sunset Soon Forgotten.” He then switched to his electric guitar and the band stretched out an intro that seemed reminiscent of Van Morrison as they teased and pulsated before ultimately launching into 2005’s “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven.” The banjo parts rolled around on top of the band and floated alongside the smooth, smoky intonations of Beam’s voice. Beam’s voice is like a humidor, attempting to mellow and tone a sound too dark to share and too beautiful to destroy. At times his voice carried the band. At times, he used it as just another instrument, blending effortlessly with the ten-person backing band as he “ooohed” and “aaahed” his way through breaks and refrains.

The band came in crests and waves. They rose and fell as with the tides. In “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog),” the band built the song up and then broke it back down. They opened up a spacey and psychedelic instrumental breakdown that gave way to, at different times, a strong roots guitar solo, an organ and electric banjo break down and screaming horns bouncing throughout the groove.

At one point, a woman standing behind me whispered “it sounds like whales.” It was a perfect imagery. There was a looseness, near desperation to the sound, yet it was graceful and stoic and said exactly what it wanted to say. That sound emerged several times throughout the night. Each time a continuation of a conversation, always a new twist on a sad story that needed to be told.

iaw14.jpg“Half Moon” opened with an acoustic guitar reminiscent of the Allman Brother’s “Little Martha.” The band’s doo-wop over the top of Beam’s vocals was brilliant. Choppy, syncopated percussive sounds that conjured images of a classical timpanist reigned in “Arms of a Thief.” At one point during the song, the percussion took on a role that could have been just as comfortable during a performance by Stomp. The horn line was in full-force during The Shepherd Dog‘s “House by the Sea,” giving the number a full Afrobeat energy and rhythm.

The band took an interlude and suddenly the three-piece horn line was playing melodies straight from the islands. Then, following another break, it was like a New Orleans jazz horn line had wandered in from the cold to fill out the band’s sound, clearly demonstrating their range and ability to pay reverence to virtually any sound. The band closed out the single set with “Fever Dream” and “Tree by the River.” They exited the stage; the crowd stayed in place.

When Iron and Wine came back, it was just Beam, alone and with his acoustic guitar. He played “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” He held his guitar throughout the entirety of the song, but until the last few measures when the guitar kicked in its few simple chords, Beam’s voice stood alone as he sang us home. It was an unneeded reminder that though the band is great and the full sound a treat, it is Beam’s voice, soulful and strong beyond its years, that brought this crowd out on a rainy Friday evening.


Setlist: Me and Lazarus, Sunset Soon Forgotten, Freedom Hangs Like Heaven, Summer in Savannah, Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog), Walking Far From Home, Cinder and Smoke, Big Burned Hand, Half Moon, Arms of a Thief, Faded from the Winter, Free Until They Cut Me Down, Glad Man Singing, Lion’s Mane, House by the Sea, Boy With a Coin, Fever Dream, Tree by the River

Encore: Flightless Bird, American Mouth

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