(Review by Roy Kasten)
The music of Iron and Wine -- lyrical, evocative, unassuming, imagistic and rhythmically supple -- is so laser-straight into my wheelhouse that I’m often surprised that I don’t like it more. Perhaps that’s because it’s highly boring. That’s not a criticism -- and as an explanation, it’s not right either. A lot of what I love is boring: the sentences of Flaubert, the color field paintings of Rothko, the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the piano of Keith Jarrett, the songs of Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, sitting by a river and watching it go by. That’s all anti-pop, beautiful and stirring, but boring all the same. You try to get a twelve-year-old to sit and listen to Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
So there’s something salutary, even hopeful, at the sight of a 1000 or more sub-35-somethings, including a sizeable number of teens, standing or sitting still as stones throughout the quintessential boredom of an Iron and Wine concert, the only thing more intensely, pristinely boring than an Iron and Wine album. Sam Beam and band -- which included pedal steel, percussion, drums, violin, vibraphone, grand piano, electric piano, bass and backing vocals -- played for an hour and half. Nothing happened, unless you count a minor ruckus in the balcony seats when some chap stripped off his shirt, threw it down to the floor, and then squirmed and shook it like a Village Person. Beam laughed but security didn’t, and you could almost hear the crowd think as one: Taze him, bro. Taze him, bro.
Nothing happened but beautiful, gossamer, flying-while-motionless song after song. Dressed in George Harrison gravedigger dungarees, Beam opened the show with “Each Coming Night,” accompanied only by his Taylor acoustic guitar and sister Sarah Beam on backing vocals. Then just one more acoustic number, “He Lays In the Reins,” before the band walked on stage for the gently driving jealous lover’s song “Bird Stealing Bread,” with the question “Do his hands in your hair feel a lot like a thing you believe in?” sung with as much acrimony as Zen-blissed Beam need ever muster.
Though a loose ensemble, the band mostly plays as one, knowing their parts, whether it’s the light plink of a single piano key or a bell, or the vibes struck to sound like a mbira, or Calexico guitarist Paul Neihaus peeling off pedal steel lines. But as the band kicked into full Afro-Cuban gear with “House By the Sea,” one wondered if within that lush, polyrhythmic sound there might be room for rocking, for hints of a thrill.
For the most part, there wasn’t; instead, Beam led the band through blurred grooves and segues, like Fela Ransome-Kuti on heroin. The grooves were always hypnotic, and no one but the evicted shirtless guy ever seemed to move along with them. Perhaps the crowd considered dancing disrespectful to the mystical romantic poet hero who hadn’t visited St. Louis in some four years. Or perhaps they were just being themselves: closeted hippies not ready to go all the way, even as the band jammed hard, almost flirting with cutting loose, on “Upward Over the Mountain.”
The night drew to a close with slide guitar blues on “Love and Some Verses” and “The Night Descending,” played like Captain Beefheart on heroin, into a protracted, almost triumphal “Shepherd’s Dog.” The band, however, wouldn’t come back for an encore. Instead, Beam returned with sister Sarah, and the two sang “Resurrection Fern,” a delicate, lightly percussive hymn to the sensual silence at the heart of Beam’s music. In the end, grace is always boring, but necessarily, beautifully so.