Once the darling of the lo-fi bed-sit crowd with his whispered ballads and minimalist meditations, Iron and Wine (aka Sam Beam) was channeling his inner soul man at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center on Saturday night. Not that anyone is likely to confuse Beam’s brand of backporch-psychedelic funk with the sweat-inducing classics of James Brown, let’s say, but Beam has definitely broken out of his mountain-man alt-folk box, and in his own, still utterly unique way, he was throwing down.
It’s too bad that the sold-out crowd never really turned Saturday’s concert into a full-fledged dance party, but then again, it would have been mighty difficult to keep up with the consistently intriguing arrangements and rapidly shifting time signatures that Beam was churning out.
Iron and Wine is no longer a solo Beam affair. At MASS MoCA, he was backed by a swell, five-piece band (led by guitarist-banjoist-mandolinist Jim Becker of Califone), a wailing, three-piece horn section and a backing vocalist Rosie Taylor.
Older songs were given some rather radical re-arrangements – and in some cases, total re-inventions – but Beam wasn’t apologetic about messing around with fan-favorites from his earlier song catalog. “We want to give you something that you can’t listen to at home,” he explained. “We’ll see what happens.”
What happened was something marvelous, akin to what happened when the Talking Heads left behind their minimalist new wave to embrace an expansive Afro-pop direction.
With an arsenal of sonic variations at his disposal onstage, Beam’s music seemed to be constantly moving from one style to another, yet somehow it all maintained a surprisingly sharp focus. A mid-concert stretch of tunes saw I&W effortlessly shifting stylistic gears from soul ballad (“My Lady’s House”) to country blues (“Big Burned Hand”) to Dixieland (“Lovesong of a Buzzard”) to film noir sizzle (“Free Until They Cut Me Down,” which at times sounded remarkably like a long-lost out-take from Miles Davis’ “Jack Johnson” soundtrack).
It was a stunning performance. Beam is a surprisingly strong and soulful vocalist (his keening falsetto soared on such songs as “Summer in Savannah” and “Lion’s Mane”), a competent guitarist (his solos were few, but he tore off a compelling solo during the free-jazz-meets-hip-hop epic “Wolves [Song of the Shepherd’s Dog]”) and an exquisite songwriter.
The band arrangements flowed quite organically, never seeming to shoehorn the music into places it shouldn’t go. And the horn section kept the proceedings pumped up – especially saxman Stuart Bogie, who led the Dixieland charge on “Lovesong of a Buzzard” with his clarinet; spiced up “Sea and the Rhythm” with some tasty harmonica work; and offered some fluttering flute-work on “God Made the Automobile.”
Beam and company wrapped up the show with the stellar one-two punch of the nostalgic, Beach Boys-meets-Van Morrison-esque “Tree by the River” and the Latin-tinged “Rabbit Will Run,” before closing out the night with a mesmerizing a cappella “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.”
The Low Anthem opened the show with their third captivating Nippertown performance in just the past five months. The Providence quartet was as magnificent as ever with their arsenal of oddball instruments (Mat Davidson even took a bowed banjo solo at one point), their hypnotic, rough-hewn harmonies and their non-nonsense stage presence.
IRON & WINE SET LIST
Boy With a Coin
Freedom Hangs Like Heaven
Summer in Savannah
Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)
Walking Far From Home
My Lady’s House
Big Burned Hand
Lovesong of a Buzzard
Free Until They Cut Me Down
House By the Sea
Sea and the Rhythm
God Made the Automobile
Tree by the River
Rabbit Will Run
Flightless Bird, American Mouth (solo)
THE LOW ANTHEM SET LIST
To the Ghosts Who Write History Books
Ghost Woman Blues
Hey, All You Hippies!
Home I’ll Never Be
This God Damn House