Ambitious new album dominates Iron & Wine concert in Buffalo

Review: Sam Beam steals show with songs off far-reaching new album, 'Kiss Each Other Clean.'

Part way through the Iron & Wine concert at the Town Ballroom in Buffalo on April 15 - maybe eight or nine songs in - one voice emerges loud and clear from the audience. It’s around the time in the show when people start getting anxious that their favorite songs aren’t going to be played. Some people might start shouting requests.

Photo: Alex Pines
Sam Beam of Iron & Wine performs at the Town Ballroom in Buffalo on Friday.

The request here was an easy one to fulfill.

"Play whatever you want.”

Everyone else cheers in agreement. They know that Sam Beam can do no wrong.

It was a night that started off with questions and high hopes. Iron & Wine’s latest release, Kiss Each Other Clean, was an ambitious change of direction from previous work. The acclaimed Our Endless Numbered Days was built almost entirely around Beam’s brilliant lyrics and songwriting ability. When he started to experiment with blues, dub and other styles of music on later albums, critics lauded him again. But Kiss Each Other Clean took it all a step further, making use of an even wider variety of instruments and percussion, as well as a brass section. One had to wonder how well Beam would be able to pull off these ambitious songs in concert.

The answer: he nailed them.

Even with 10 other people on stage with him, including several guitarists, a bassist, a trumpeter, a saxophonist, backup vocalists, a keyboardist and two percussionists, Beam still dominated the show. His falsetto voice shone through on songs like “Walking far from home” - off the new album - and “My Lady’s House” - a soulful love song that also demonstrated his guitar talent. The backup singers complemented him well and the whole production sounded album-quality.

Old songs were reworked to fit the style of the new album and done so in a way that would convince you that’s how the songs were originally meant to sound. Songs like “Free until they cut me down” were given additional layers of brass and percussion, which added life to the show without seeming like he was trying to force something. The leering bass and horns were enchanting as Beam coaxed the audience with the lyric “take me home.” The song developed into a powerful crescendo. There was no note that did not serve a purpose.

Even newer songs were reworked for the show. “We’re trying to give you something that you can’t get at home,“ Beam said, an effort that any concertgoer can appreciate.

The audience acknowledged Beam’s switch to an acoustic guitar with cheering and excitement. That he would use it to play “Big burned hand," a song from his new album, no one could’ve seen coming. The album version of the song features funky guitar work and lots of brass with no acoustic guitar to be found. However, with some clever picking and help from his band, Beam made it work wonderfully.

It’s tough to completely switch musical styles in the way that Sam Beam did, especially considering how successful he was before he started experimenting with new sounds. But after the show on Friday there is no question as to whether he made the right move. The only problem with this show doesn’t occur to you until long after you leave, when you’re dialing up Iron & Wine on your iPod. Nothing you hear will even come close.

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