With his high forehead and thick, bushy beard, Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam looks like he could be carved from granite. But the music he played at the Wiltern Tuesday — both alone and with the Tucson, Ariz., collective Calexico — was stunningly atmospheric. The music, with its dreamy mixture of folk harmonies and languidly played Chicago blues riffs, would slip through one’s fingers just as the listener thought he was getting a handle on it. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a singer-songwriter who cloaks himself in mystery, a man who in “The Trapeze Swinger” can ask to be remembered “happily,” “mistakenly,” “seldomly” and as “a vision too removed to mention.”
He may be the center of attention, but as a bandleader, Beam has a low gravitational pull. Each instrument is in its own orbit, the guitars playing repeated circular figures, the bass simple and entropic. Combined, the effect is wobbly and trancelike. Precision is anathema; when a second drummer is added, the effect is to further smudge the beat. The patterns are close to the exploded folk of Neil Young and the boogie of Slim Harpo or John Lee Hooker, but they’re lighter, less grounded. The songs feel like they could be played indefinitely but rarely turn into jams — after a few minutes, they just stop.
Beam’s vocals rarely rise above a whisper, but when he’s joined by his sister, Sara, and Calexico’s Joey Burns, they have the delicacy of British folk groups such as Pentangle. With the band’s dusty blues behind them, they achieve a quiescent beauty. Their cover of the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” trades Nico’s insider’s hauteur for harmonies that survey the scene with a combination of wonder and pity.
The finely honed balance of the music is apparent when they bring on guests. Neither Mike Watt (who added bass on “History of Lovers”) nor Victoria Williams (who joined in on vocals during a cover of “Always on My Mind”) was able to find a way into the music, only adding clutter.
In its solo set, Calexico played lovely desert music — a cross between Gram Parsons, the Grateful Dead and Marty Robbins with a touch of mariachi music.
Iron and Wine and Calexico just released a collaborative mini album, “In the Reins,” on Overcoat Records. They play New York’s Webster Hall Dec. 4-6.