Iron & Wine – the project of songwriter Sam Beam –will play New York’s Radio City Music Hall to support upcoming album Kiss Each Other Clean later this month, one of the band’s biggest shows ever. But Beam and Co. previewed the new songs last night in a 10-song, hour-long “secret” set in front of journalists, record label staffers and others at the 250-capacity Mercury Lounge in New York’s East Village.
The gig felt like a loose rehearsal, with Beam taking gaps to figure out which guitar he’d use. “It’s nice to play new songs, but it’s nerve-wracking,” he admitted at one point. “You never know what’s going to happen, and we don’t exactly practice.”
Wearing a charcoal blazer over a sweater and sporting a large, bushy beard, Beam still looks like the film professor at the University of Miami he once was (he now lives in Austin, Texas with his five daughters). Strapping on his acoustic guitar, backed by a seven-piece band, he kicked off with the new “Tree By the River,” a nostalgic, heavy-strumming ode to a high school sweetheart with vocal harmonies.
“A lot of people I talk to say it has an AM Gold feel to it,” Beam tells Rolling Stone of the track. “They remember hearing in their parents' car growing up, and I love that music.”
It’s a new kind of album for Beam, whose last disc The Shepherd's Dog was born out of a click-track and an acoustic guitar. Kiss Each Other Clean is Iron & Wine’s first with a live band, and though the songs are some of Beam’s catchiest, he often goes for chaos elsewhere, with wailing saxophones, spacey synth and at times, Jamaican rhythms. The epic eight-minute album closer “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me” even features a grungy Neil Young-style guitar solo.
“It’s hard to turn heads with quote-unquote 'experimental' music,” says Beam. “I like doing stuff you haven’t really heard. I like to push myself and for me it wasn’t necessarily in reaction to other people but in reaction to my own sort of development. It’s hard to get more simplistic than the early stuff and so the only place you can go is more complex at the moment.”
Beam began recording in Chicago in April with longtime producer Brian Deck, working over several months in one-week bursts. “Then I would take it home and fool around with a bunch of weird synth stuff,” says Beam. “It’s like painting where you make a couple marks, go back and look, make a couple marks, go back and do another week."
Last night, Beam seemed energized to play the new material, even if the crowd was a little stiff. “Well, I’m happy to be here,” he said early on, countering the uncomfortable silence. Later, he sarcastically urged, “Seriously guys, shut the fuck up!” and another time busted out his funniest line, “Everybody take off your dancing shoes for a second – I know how you New Yorkers are. I don’t even know what that means.”
If the reaction wasn’t great, the songs were. “Half Moon” had the band singing giant in-your-face doo-wop harmonies while “Monkeys Uptown” had Beam playing electric guitar over a drum track, funky bass and spacey, bubbling synth effects. Its rhythm exploded and faded, leaving Beam bouncing off chunky wah-wah riffs with guitarist Jim Becker.
The set continued the chaotic sax-heavy EP track “Summer in Savannah,” the eerie “Rabbit Will Run" and “Me and Lazerous,” full of thudding, funky percussion run through synth’s on the album. “We’d put mikes on drums and run it through some pedals and tweak it out,” Beam says. “It gives the percussion a different life when it sounds like a ray gun from Star Wars.”
Beam ended with his 2007 single “Boy with a Coin,” playing it on a reverb-heavy electric guitar. Though Shepherd's Dog was a hit with critics, Beam isn’t feeling any pressure. “I went to art school for college and I got used to criticism pretty fast,” he says. “You’re gonna do what you are gonna do. If you keep working consistently, you end up with all these tunes. So you see which ones you got in your bag and which ones you feel like working on and developing.”
Tree By The River
Big Burned Hand
Glad Man Singing
Summer In Savannah
Godless Brother In Love
Rabbit Will Run
Me And Lazarus
Boy With A Coin
Sam Beam - guitar, vocal
Jim Becker - guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, backing vocal
Stuart Bogie - saxophone, clarinet, flute
Matt Lux - bass
Joe Adamik - drums
Ben Massarella - percussion
Rosie Thomas - backing vocals
Nick Luca - keys