Like all of Iron and Wine’s releases, The Shepherd’s Dog (2007) requires a certain amount of patience. Sam Beam’s breathy vocals and gentle melodies are not for rocking out, and an antsy listener will miss the calm beauty of his songs. Still, The Shepherd’s Dog is Iron and Wine’s lushest, most upbeat, and most produced album yet, and it’s darn near accessible. The number and variety of instruments is startling, and they provide a warm, full sound that envelops the guitar’s folky twang and seems to extend from Beam’s vocal harmony with himself.
Last week, Iron and Wine, a band officially including only singer-songwriter Sam Beam, performed to a full house at 4th & B in downtown San Diego, and Jeff and I were there to see it. We arrived downtown shortly before 8pm when doors opened, and already there was a line around the corner. The crowd was different than I expected, older and cleaner-cut, and the venue floor was arranged with folding chairs. Theater seats filled the back, and I worried that this would be an atmosphere that sucked the energy from Iron and Wine’s already subdued repertoire.
I was wrong.
With the same innovation that made The Shepherd’s Dog both a noticeable departure from and an unmistakable product of earlier releases, Iron and Wine’s live performance blew up the recorded sound, delivering big, danceable, but true versions of songs from several albums. Sam Beam had seven people accompanying him, playing instruments that included vibraphone, pedal steel guitar, electric upright bass, bongos, and piano. A woman sang harmony. The audience was into it.
Beam had the twangifier turned up to eleven on his guitar, capo dangerously low, and the band pushed back with everything from pop to funk to reggae. During one of the funkier numbers, one young man, the sort of person I had expected to see at an Iron and Wine concert (ungroomed) moved to the space between the front row and the stage, dancing. A security guard rushed out and roughly moved him to the side of the stage. Immediately, another young man stepped up to the front and began dancing. The crowd cheered. A young woman joined him, and when they stopped Beam smiled and asked, “Where did they go?” Another man moved forward. Jeff echoed the people around us: “People dancing? At an Iron and Wine concert?”
Iron and Wine played for two hours, almost without talking between songs. When Beam did talk he seemed overwhelmingly shy. His singing voice was strong, and even sometimes closer a baritone than his trademark whisper, but when he spoke it was so quietly that it was difficult to understand what he was saying. I had imagined Sam Beam soft-spoken and hairy, of course, but also awkward. All of the photos I had seen of him were close-ups of his face, and they had made him seem large and strange and unaccustomed to light. But the man who took the stage was graceful. Tall and slim, his huge beard and long hair gave him a distinguished modesty, and he projected a powerful and a sexy presence.
In real life, I freely apply “sexy” to sensitive woodsmen, but I generally like my rock stars to be greasy-haired drinkers in leather jackets and low-slung jeans. Sam Beam, bottled water in hand, dressed in a sweater vest and peasant shirt, work boots and weathered jeans, did not look like a rock star. But darn it if he didn’t look better, like the perfect blend of poet and mountain man, which is to say, just how he ought to.
I don’t think I was alone in my admiration; the whole audience seemed plainly happy just to be there. Even the evening’s Obnoxious Song-Requester Guy was sweet, adding “Please Sir, please Sir,” each time he called for “Jezebel.” Actually, he was so mannerly and so persistent that his yell became a comedic expectation, our laughter signifying equal approval of hearing the song and of prolonging its request. When Beam introduced the final number, he smiled and said, “It’s not ‘Jezebel.’”
They must have already played twenty-five songs, but the house lights promised us an encore, and when Sam Beam returned to the stage alone, I swear the audience quivered. We knew what we were getting, and we were excited. The retelling of this moment is coded for schmaltz, but Mr. Beam gave us “Jezebel” straight, with the intimation that he was simply confirming the song’s rightness. “Jezebel” was the whole encore, but that, too, seemed just right.