Iron and Wine, CalifoneFox Tucson Theatre, Monday, Nov. 26
Whenever a singer/songwriter who has established him/herself with spare, acoustic solo recordings decides to expand by adding a backing band, the outcome is uncertain.
Sometimes, Iron and Wine's full-band incarnation, in their well-attended performance at the historic Fox, worked beautifully, allowing pioneering frontman Sam Beam's songs to grow in drama and power. Sometimes.
"We haven't played in a couple of weeks," Beam informed the audience upon taking the stage. "We're gonna be shaking the dust off tonight." He warmly thanked the audience for coming and kicked off the set with a lush, trembling version of "Cinder and Smoke," from 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days.
Beam was joined onstage by Calexico's Paul Niehaus on steel guitar, sister Sarah Beam providing backing vocals, percussionist Ben Massarella from opening band Califone, and a bass player, drummer, accordionist/vibes player and pianist. This version of Iron and Wine is best described as a kind of folk-pop orchestra, with energetic arrangements that swelled to near-cacophony before dying back down. The extra instrumentation was all about dynamics, adding tinkling vibes or scratchy bowed bass as discordant counterpoint to Beam's folksy melodies. Iron and Wine's performance had a lot of jazzy dynamism to it, though sometimes, these improvisational excesses were the weakest points of the show, as when the group stretched song outros into eight-minute-long jamborees that, while often providing segues, felt excessive and a tad overwrought.
Monday's performance included all of the songs from The Shepherd's Dog, while also borrowing from Days and a couple of EPs. The best performances had everything to do with Beam himself, and less to do with the band. With the exception of Niehaus' steel guitar, which lent an apropos haunting quality to Beam's American Gothic ballads, the rest of the band often felt like it was in Beam's way. The stark intimacy of his best work is in the simplicity of the man and his guitar. This was reflected in the applause, hollers and shouts of encouragement from the audience when Beam switched from electric to acoustic guitar halfway through the set. That acoustic guitar was the visual cue that Beam would be performing songs with the same lo-fi intimacy that established his career.
Beam responded by playfully hesitating, as if he would reject the acoustic guitar, but then relented and delivered the most powerful moments of the night.