Live review: Iron and Wine at the Wiltern
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Here’s something we didn’t know about Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam: The laudably bearded former film professor and father of five is actually one of the suavest sex jam singers of recent note. True, the moments of baby-making R&B at the first of his two sold-out nights at the Wiltern on Tuesday came tempered with death and cosmic impermanence and a bit of a ’70s yupster-funk sheen. But Beam wasn’t kidding when he titled his latest album “Kiss Each Other Clean” — his current live set puts heavy emphasis on backseat smooching.
Iron and Wine has undergone one of the more remarkable transformations in indie-folk since 2002’s “The Creek Drank the Cradle,” which is nigh impossible to describe without the words “sepia” and “toned.” Beam’s sound was rooted in adept acoustic fingerpicking, close-harmony whispers and lyrics that evoked rural pleasures and spiritual perils without coming off mawkish.
But after an unexpected hit with a cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” he hung a hard left into humid Afro-pop guitars, noisy jazz breakdowns and percussive exotica that complemented his ever-stronger singing. It turned out his intimate pleas sound kind of saucy with a bedsheet-tight backbeat.
“Kiss,” his major-label debut for Warner Bros., is his most sonically adventurous yet, but it posed a particular challenge for this round of touring. How does a low-key folk guy wrangle a dozen-strong backing band into something that can hold the Wiltern for two nights?
Well, it turns out that Beam is a pretty excellent bandleader as well as a rustic autodidact. With a cast including veterans of Chicago avant-jazz and Broadway’s production of “Fela!,” he faithfully re-created jazz-prickly cuts like “Rabbit Will Run” (writer John Updike is an apropos reference for his NPR-accessible belt-unbucklers) and skronky Southern soul of “Big Burned Hand.” Beam is a modest frontman, and his ambitions for Iron and Wine have probably outgrown the campfire croon his more mainstream audience wants from him. But his congeniality as a writer belies a savvy and restless ear for arrangements.
Beam’s breathy croon is a fine instrument, and with a couple pristine harmonists behind him, the vocals became an evocative wash of group falsetto on “Tree by the River.” But they still felt grounded in something human and needy, a tough trick for an ensemble of this size that could easily lean on instrumental prowess to make its point.
To that effect, the way the band re-imagined Iron and Wine’s older, spare singles was one of the night’s best pleasures. On “The Sea & the Rhythm,” when Beam promised that “My hands believe and move over you” atop newly slinky drumming and eager low end, it felt more like R. Kelly’s mix of the sacred and the seductive. Even “Naked as We Came,” an older song about a couple realizing one of them will die before the other, had a tinge of lusty desperation to it. If we’re all going to croak anyway, it seemed to suggest, we may as well get handsy while the blood still runs hot.
Beam returned to his sparse acoustic roots on a solo encore of his “Twilight” soundtrack cut “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” But by then, the pickup lines had been run, and the Wiltern was left flushed, sweaty and, contrary to the title of the new album, maybe even a little dirty.
-- August Brown