Review: Iron and Wine get loose, bring lightness and levity to the Straz Center in Tampa
When the hell did Sam Beam grow a sense of humor?
Okay, that’s mean. He’s probably quite the jolly old soul, deep beneath those bushy backwoods whiskers. But as Iron and Wine, Beam was the new millennium’s original bard of sad-bastardry, soundtracking hushed coffeehouse breakups long before the world discovered Justin Vernon or Robin Pecknold.
So who was this bearded, bemused soul who played Tampa’s Straz Center on Wednesday, giving 981 fans a lighthearted, seat-off-his-pants tour of the deepest depths of his catalog – and doing it all with a carefree smile and a twinkle in his eye? Where’s this guy been?
Playing almost entirely solo, Beam improvised his setlist straight from audience suggestions, risking (and making) missteps along the way – a dropped chord here, a hiccupped lyric there. But he chuckled off every imperfection, fostering an intimacy with the crowd that made Ferguson Hall feel like your living room.
“There are songs I can do in my sleep,” Beam said, “but that’s not fun, right?”
It was, in fact, a night of deep cuts, no doubt delighting longtime Iron and Wine fans who flooded the stage with suggestions. Some of Iron and Wine’s best-known songs – including Fever Dream, Upward Over the Mountain and a cover of The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights – didn’t make the cut, but uber-rarities like the never-released Miss Bottom of the Hill did.
“I’m taking notes, finding out who my real fans are,” Beam said.
It’s been 10 years since Beam last played Tampa, and in that time his music has evolved from whispered, strummy folk to feel-good, freewheeling fusion. But in this solo setting, songs from throughout his career sounded natural alongside one another.
For example: Stripped of its jazzy studio veneer, Grace for Saints and Ramblers, the jaunty centerpiece of new album Ghost On Ghost, was transformed into an airy dorm-hallway singalong. Meanwhile, Jezebel – a plinky, dreamy track from a 2005 Iron and Wine EP that was greeted with hoots of excitement – got a shot of energy as Beam played it with something approximating bluesy power chords.
Though Beam’s poetic can seep into Troubadour/Greenwich Village territory – his ageless, sepia voice isn’t as far as you’d think from James Taylor’s – he kept the show moving at a surprisingly lively pace. Boy With a Coin and Big Burned Hand featured nimble fingerpicking that called to mind Lindsey Buckingham. The Trapeze Singer ebbed and swelled with each driving verse, and Hunting My Dress – a song written by and performed with opener Jesca Hoop – was straight out of the Civil Wars' playbook, all swampy southern blues and heavenly harmonies.
Sensing, perhaps, that an over-serious tone could kill his connection with the audience, Beam was funny and self-deprecating all night, making the audience laugh between each number and poking fun at his own sensitive songbook. Before launching into the slow and sparse The Sea and the Rhythm – a song that begins, Tonight we're the sea and the salty breeze / The milk from your breast is on my lips – Beam said, “You like these funky, sexy tunes, don’t you? These confusing, maybe Oedipal songs?" A beat. "It’s not about my mom.”
And then, inevitably, someone in the audience shouted out a request for Free Bird. “Don’t tempt me with Free Bird, man,” Beam said. “I’ll play it, solos and all.”
Then, as he tried to remember the chords to the rarely played Teeth in the Grass, he leaned back, and in that familiar, gentle falsetto, began to croon: If I leeeave here tomorrowww…
Iron and Wine covering Lynyrd Skynyrd? Well, why not? Sounds like fun, and if Wednesday is any indication, fun seems to be right in Sam Beam’s wheelhouse these days.
Before Iron and Wine’s set, the audience showed great respect and admiration for opener Hoop. In this radically stripped-down setting, she came across as a flower from the meadow between Joanna Newsom and Norah Jones, delivering operatic, slightly Celtic-tinged folk songs while softly plucking an electric guitar.
Like Beam, Hoop wasn’t perfect, either, stutter-stepping her way to a start on Born To. But once she got going, the song was devastatingly beautiful, her voice soaring to an ethereal falsetto by the end. It was a revelatory performance to those in the audience who’d never before heard her name.
“I almost broke into tears at the end of that song,” Hoop said at one point during her set. She probably wasn’t alone.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*