Easy as it is to complain about the sorry state of radio programming, the overwhelming album sales of lip-synchers, and the now-bordering-on-mindless-regurgitation trend of ‘80s New Wave revivalism, there’s still hope when a hitless singer/songwriter known for his hushed musings can fill an 1,100 seat theater with a healthy dose of faux-vintage-T-shirt-wearing twentysomethings.
When Iron & Wine’s Samuel Beam walks on stage, hollers and whoops erupt as he tunes his guitar and is joined by a five-piece backing band. Charmingly shy and subtly clever, he’s already befriending the front row with smirks and asides when the band breaks into “Jezebel” from his recent EP, Woman King. The gentleness of Beam’s voice is in full bloom, but it’s evident that his band likes to turn it up a few notches, changing whisper-quiet tunes like “Cinder and Smoke” and “Bird Stealing Bread” into reggae-tinged, slide-guitar jams. Beam’s sister, Sara, accompanies him on harmony vocals, fiddle and tambourine; when “Cinder and Smoke” moves into revolving verses of “oh ya ya ya,” Sara’s sweet falsetto echoes after Sam’s deft tenor. The band sticks around for another four or five songs before leaving Beam alone with his guitar and wit.
Much has been made of Iron & Wine’s lo-fi 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, and for good reason. Beam recorded it solo on a four-track in a room at his Florida home, and as he sings a wonderfully curious stanza from the album’s “Upward Over the Mountain” (“mother remember the blink of an eye when I breathed through your body?/ Sons are like birds flying upward over the mountain”), the air in The Variety Playhouse seems to whisper a delicate ‘thanks’ that Beam’s Miami room, three years old and one state south, is still accessible.
Now joined onstage again by his sister, Beam starts to pick through some guitar figures reminiscent of his arrangement of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Someone in the crowd lets out an approving yell. Beam stops in his tracks. “What are you cheering for?” he jibes, catching everyone off guard, “All of my songs start like this.” He takes another minute to tune, then says, “You want to hear a cover song?” He then forges into a completely unrecognizable, but delightfully inventive version of The Sugarcubes’ “Birthday.”
The band returns for a few more songs—inflected with upbeat percussion, xylophone and electric guitar—before exiting and making way for the audience’s encore ritual. Beam returns to the stage with Sara and ends the show with a new song called “Trapeze Swinger.” It’s a gorgeous tune, overflowing with mouthfuls of memory, regret and a repeated phrase that, after this show, will be difficult not to do—”Please, remember me.”