Iron & Wine - Live @ Radio City Music Hall, 01/29/2011

Posted by Greg , Monday, January 31, 2011 2:45 PM

When I last saw Iron & Wine live, at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA (outside of Philadelphia), Sam Beam was drowning.  His face was covered by an enormous beard and even more enormous head of hair, and his songs were swallowed up in dense layers of instrumentation.  He was surrounded by what seemed like a dozen other musicians on stage, and his interactions with the crowd were minimal at best.  Yelling out requests for classic songs seems common at Iron & Wine concerts (and really, at anyone else's, too), but Beam would only occasionally respond to these shouts of old song titles with mumbled remarks like "That's one" and "That's another one."  While the show itself was great, it felt like Beam was retreating into himself, hiding from his audience with as many outward layers of he could muster.

The sold-out Radio City Music Hall saw a very different Sam Beam.  Beard and hair trimmed short, he walked out on stage in a suit and minimal ensemble - a banjo player, a pianist, and two backup singers.  The crowd greeted him warmly, and Beam asked possibly the greatest opening line I've ever heard at a rock show:

"Are you ready to get fucking mellow?"

The band began with straightforward arrangements of "He Lays in the Reins," found on Beam's 2005 collaboration with Calexico, and new song "Half Moon."  I say "straightforward" because the band has developed a reputation for playing wildly different live versions from those found on the studio albums, especially since the tour supporting 2007's The Shepherd's Dog.  Thus, after playing a more ominous "Fever Dream" and stripped-down, saxophone-less "Big Burned Hand," Beam thanked the audience for appreciating the new arrangements, adding, "A song should be a living thing," possibly a response to fans who gripe about deviations from note-for-note renditions of Our Endless Numbered Days.

Beam seemed to be in a great mood, joking with the crowd in a style reminiscent of the late Mitch Hedberg.  After someone yelled a request for a song I couldn't hear (but I'm guessing was "Freebird"), Beam laughed and said, "Are you serious?  Get that shit out of here.  Do you eat the same thing every day?  This is New York!"

After performing the always pretty "My Lady's House," he invited another six musicians on stage - a saxophone/flute, baritone sax, trumpet, bass, and two drummers - to complete the rest of his band.  Beam was not about to be overwhelmed by this ensemble, though.  He stood confidently front-and-center, with the band arrayed in a semi circle behind him.  Despite the large backing band, Beam carried himself with an easygoing swagger, a frontman fully in control of the show.  It was a display of tremendous growth as a performer from his days of whispering confessionals into a home demo recorder.

Throughout the beginning of the set I had been talking about capturing some of the show on my iPhone.  So, as the band started to play the most upbeat rock n roll I've ever heard from Iron & Wine, my wife whispered, "Maybe you should record this one, whatever it is."  As the vocals came in, we looked at each other in shock - they were playing "Love and Some Verses," the song we danced to at our wedding just six months ago, and at first neither of us recognized it.

The alternate arrangements did not stop there.  The audience was treated to a Caribbean-flavored "House by the Sea," a reverb-heavy dirge of "Sea and the Rhythm," and a lounge-style "Cinder and Smoke."  Overall they sounded great, particularly Kiss Each Other Clean b-side "Summer in Savannah."  Next to the song's name on the setlist I was writing, my only note was "epic."

After the band left the stage, Beam returned for a solo encore.  He asked the audience whether they wanted to hear "the short one or the long one."  Of course the universal response was for the long one, yielding a heartwarming and poignant performance of "The Trapeze Swinger."

This was my first concert at Radio City, and I have to say the sound there is absolutely fantastic.  The only odd moment of the night was when opener Edie Brickell answered a text message during her set.  (In her defense, it was from her daughter, asking whether Brickell could drive her to a friend's house later.  "After about five songs," Brickell announced to the audience.)

Here's the entire setlist:

He Lays in the Reins
Half Moon
Fever Dream
Big Burned Hand
My Lady's House
Naked As We Came
--full ensemble introduced--
Tree by the River
Love and Some Verses
House by the Sea
The Sea and the Rhythm
Me and Lazarus
Summer in Savannah
Boy with a Coin
Rabbit Will Run
Glad Man Singing
Cinder and Smoke
--band leaves for solo encore--
The Trapeze Swinger

What do you think about artists playing alternate versions of their songs?  Would you rather hear a song similar to the way it was recorded, or do you prefer to hear a new rendition?

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