Last week I went to see Iron & Wine perform with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. This was a going to be a special performance – one of only three across the country – to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Our Endless Numbered Days. I had never seen Sam Beam (the musician behind Iron & Wine) live before, but I had wanted to for exactly 15 years – ever since the album came out and I listened to it on repeat over and over again.
These songs still have a special place in my heart – they sound like longing and quiet, warm nostalgia, and remind me of my favorite illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova’s old paintings. I was a bit wary to hear them arranged for the orchestra (even if done so by David Campbell – who’s worked with Carole King, Radiohead, Adele, and Beyoncé, among many others) – since so much of their charm comes from the intimacy of the low-fi guitar and Beam’s voice.
The arrangements turned out to be beautiful. Many of the songs went through considerable changes, but they still felt familiar in their core. Some of them – like the the obvious crowd pleaser Naked As We Came – lost all of their folky DYI-ness and became dramatic, soundtrack-worthy pieces – but in a good way, without sounding overly pompous. I’ve noticed that musicians who go through drastic changes in performance style tend to sound a bit awkward at first (Taylor Swift when she first switched to pop music, Tori Amos when she briefly toured with a full band for Scarlet’s Walk, etc.), and Beam wasn’t an exception. You could tell the songs were very well rehearsed, but it seemed like he felt a bit out of his element – he would start singing a line, and then stumble and stifle himself, kind of like when you’re singing away to a favorite song at home, then remember about the neighbors, and keep going meekly at half-volume. I expected this, however (singing with an orchestra is hard!), and he seemed to grow more confident as the set went on.
The orchestra performance was followed by an acoustic solo set. Iron & Wine definitely has a way of making a concert hall feel like you’re sitting in a friend’s kitchen, listening to them tune their guitar and struggle with remembering the right lyrics (“Do you remember the line? Do you remember?”). When we were talking with my friend Sadhwi after the show, I said I wasn’t sure how much of it (especially the lyric-forgetting – since most of the songs he played were long-time fan favorites) was real and how much of it was just part of the performance. But the atmosphere he creates during his shows is undeniably delightful.
One thing I couldn’t help noticing was that Sam Beam has become a great technical singer in the last few years. Even though a big part of the solo set relied on the support from the backup singers, I don’t really think he needed them – he knows which high notes to avoid, when to sing a little quieter, how to control his voice through melody changes. He glided effortlessly through Flightless Bird, American Mouth – a song that’s notoriously hard to sing. I missed, however, the spontaneous emotion of some of the earlier performances I’d watched on YouTube, when he allowed himself to really sing – sometimes imperfectly – with all the air in his lungs.
Sunset Soon Forgotten
Free Until They Cut Me Down
On Your Wings
Naked As We Came
Sodom, South Georgia
Cinder and Smoke
The Trapeze Swinger
Right for Sky
Waves of Galveston
Each Coming Night
Tree by the River
Flightless Bird, American Mouth
Love and Some Verses