Iron & Wine Artists Den Performance at The Buckhead Theatre (11/10/11)

Let’s go back exactly one year. I had never seen Iron & Wine in concert before. Honestly I didn’t care too much for Sam Beam’s music. I mean, he’s a singer-songwriter and that’s all the same, right? At least those were my thoughts at the time. However, a pretty girl had 2 tickets — so I went. I sat there in that sold out venue completely mesmerized by this act that I had all but written off as a dull singer-songwriter. Fact is, while Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam has his roots in the “guy and his acoustic guitar” style, with a full band Beam is utterly incredible. After seeing Beam and company that night, my perception forever changed. So you can imagine my reaction when I checked my email merely a week before his scheduled concert in Atlanta to find that I had been invited to a private taping for PBS’ Artists Den. Words could not describe my excitement.

The Buckhead Theatre is a stunning building, recently renovated. Not too big, not too small. The invited guests didn’t even come close to the 1500 legally allowed capacity. I would estimate somewhere around 500 loyal Iron & Wine enthusiasts were present in the beautiful concert hall of the Northeast Atlanta venue. We might as well have been in Sam Beam’s living room, and he treated the event that way. The intimate setting had Beam joking and conversing with both individuals and the crowd as a whole throughout the night — at times poking fun at the fact the concert was being taped for television, saying things such as: “I doubt they’ll be able to use this song because it says f**k in it.” Beam was incredibly laid back, something I have not witnessed in my prior two encounters with Iron & Wine in concert. Halfway through “Big Burned Hand” Beam laughingly stopped the band in order to have them remind him how to play the verse chord progression. Making light of the situation he joked, “mistakes can be charming, it’s how I get by.” Charming is a perfect word to describe the thick bearded Sam Beam. This charm held the crowd captive.

Now when I say Beam brings a full band with him to a show, I mean a full band. 11 members spread themselves across the intricately plotted stage. A keyboardist, a precussionist, a drummer, 2 background vocalists, a guitarist, a bassist, a 3 piece jazz horn ensemble, and let’s not forget Sam Beam himself. When first taking the stage he said, “They’re going to cut this down to about an hour for tv. We’re going to play for two.” That they did. The musical prowess of these 11 members is comparable to no other, each and every one of them are world class musicians. Musical technicality was brought in to the forefront immediately with “Rabbit Will Run” and “Me and Lazarus.” This also must be said regarding an Iron & Wine concert: No song is the same as heard on the record. This has always amazed me from my first live encounter with the band. The ability to not only write a song that is accepted with high regard on an album, but to re-write that same song for a live setting is truly incredible, not to mention unheard of in music today.

While musicianship shined throughout the night, it was ultimately Sam Beam’s intricate lyrics paired with his unwaveringly consistent vocal that stole the show. Metaphor upon metaphor was sung to the crowd leaving the impression that Beam has lived an eventful life, full of joy-filled times, times of love, and even times of heartache. When all was said and done, the crowd wanted one more song. Beam obliged by walking back out in to the spotlight with just an acoustic guitar. What came next was possibly one of the greatest performances of an original song I have ever had the honor of witnessing in person. With his hands covering the strings of his guitar as if to say to the instrument, “you’re not necessary right now”, Beam tenderly crooned, “I was a quick wet boy // diving too deep for coins”, the first lines to “Flightless Bird, American Mouth.” What stunned me was the fact that while Beam never made any gesture toward formulating a chord (or even note) on his guitar until the second chorus, he sang the song in perfect pitch — a seemingly non-existent skill in this age of auto-tune, pitch correction, and backing tracks. The collective voices of a crowd who knew every single word made a perfect chorus of back-up vocalists for the emotion-abundant melody sung by the Iron & Wine front man. It is little things like this that make an evening with Sam Beam, the performer, so special.

I see it as a true honor to have been in attendance for this event. Seeing Iron & Wine in this setting was an experience which will not soon be forgotten. The intimate setting, the brilliant musicianship, the crowd interaction, the cameras, and the elaborate, metaphor filled lyrics made for a once in a lifetime experience for this (and a few hundred other) Iron & Wine fans. Look for Iron & Wine’s episode of Artists Den to air in early 2012. Check your local listings.

Photo Credit: Catrina Maxwell

-Jordan Welsh; November 15, 2011