Town Hall (2), 30 September 2007
Autumn Sundays are all about winding down, settling into time-tested couch grooves, gorging on comfort food and intravenous intake of football, football, football. It takes something special to jolt me out of this ritual, especially these days when the weekend seems all too short and I'm desperate to be as slovenly as possible before the work week beckons. And yet, this past Sunday evening, there I was, on a train into town, into the belly of the beast of discomfort -- Times Square. Surely if I had not bought tickets I would have talked myself into Giants vs. Eagles, but somehow my past self was prescient enough to know and even was on the ball enough to get me front row seats. So there I was, front row, Town Hall... Sam Beam, Iron & Wine.
If ever music was made for Sundays, it is Iron & Wine, and the perfect way to enjoy it is in the cozy ass-groove confines of Town Hall. Yeah, maybe the front row was a little too close (never thought I'd say that...), but the only thing that could have made it more comfortable would have been if my bed was there for me to roll directly into after the last note was sung.
Beam's new album "The Shepherd's Dog" is a bit more uptempo and a bit more electric than his previous work (it's also totally sick and highly recommended), which I have seen described (lovingly) as soporific. The first half to two-thirds of the show was a heavy dose of the album, starting off slow and steady and then picking up to what could be described as "rocking out." The band called "Iron & Wine" seems to be in some unsteady state, different characters rolling in and out, some staying the same, all just accouterments to the force that is Sam Beam. Each song, he seemed to morph a bit, changing his guitar or his capo placement or his vibe or his energy. And his team flexed around these fluctuations, pedal steel on one song with a rich twang became a little more sizzling with some pedal effects on the next; upright bass put down after one tune and thick electric Fender bass on the next. This oft-seen band flexibility was most absurd with the pony-tailed fellow back right who played accordion, xylophone, weird-ass dulcimer/electric guitar combo and more throughout the night... and yet never seemed to be present in the mix enough to make too much of a difference. The joke maybe was that he was an old high school buddy who needed a job, or maybe a lucky guy who had won a bet. The band was quite good, with the strength coming from the pedal steel/bass/drums combo, who could easily spin off and become a kick-butt trio in their own right. There was also a piano player who was low in the mix intentionally or not and a back-up singer/violin player who may or may not be related to Mr. Beam.
But mostly, it was Sam. Sunday night I was continually impressed with his guitar playing. The intricacies of his picking were subtle and understated, but the command was apparent throughout and was really the driving force of the entire band. There was little banter or attempts to engage the audience, even during tuning delays and dead spots between songs. To me, this was perfect, the songs speak for themselves and the silences in between measured as part of the music, weaving their way into the narrative. The surprising thing is that Iron & Wine -- the man and the band -- can rock. Beam's pure voice would set the scene and then his guitar would overtake it, with the band in full synch. A sound would build and build, the melody carried almost strictly by the pedal steel player who also played some straight up electric guitar on a few songs... but this wasn't soloing or jamming, just brilliant noisemaking of the My Morning Jacket variety.
It was pretty glorious and yet somehow a bit empty in comparison to the quieter stuff that started and ended the set. I don't think that material is necessarily better, but for a Sunday night on the couch it didn't feel right to be blasted with heavy drum-driven rock and roll when we could be lulled into submission by the simplicity of Beam's voice and guitar with the salt and pepper of the upright bass and steel guitar. And so, as the mood grew quieter and more somber, the set grew stronger, each whispered lyric having the power of a power chord. It's that kind of vibe that magnifies to greatness in a room like Town Hall and Beam, the latter day Cat Stevens by my estimation, seemed to revel in the warm glow. Throwing in some of the older stuff like "Sodom South Georgia" -- which was a brilliant highlight of the evening -- and a wonderfully reworked"Jezebel" made for a perfect last third of the set.
I was pleasantly surprised by the opener Arthur & Yu (another opening band plagued by the "we will not tell you who we are" syndrome... it's like these musicians are averse to success or something). Kind of a country-bopped pop with an above-average bass player/drummer combo acting as the paste that kept the rest of 'em stuck on the paper... and not afraid to open things up just a little bit. Keep an eye on these guys.
02 October 2007