The hushed, coffeehouse mysticism of Iron & Wine’s songwriting calmly pacified the Wiltern’s sold-out audience on Wednesday night. Even with the addition of a large backing band, Sam Beam’s music never once veered out of control or exposed any frayed edges. His note-perfect singing, complimented often by a lush layer of female backing harmonies, connected without force, gently undulating between an airy falsetto and his pristine tenor.
In terms of musical presentation, it is clear that Beam aims to obscure the influence of mainstream popular music by utilizing traditional folk instruments. The arrangements are nostalgic and beautifully rendered, but the songs lack the strange unpredictability classified by Greil Marcus as the sound of the “Old Weird America” — an oddball mix of death, fear, sex and solitary desperation.
Instead, Beam imbues his verses with a wide-eyed sense of lovelorn romanticism and religious mythology. As recorded works, the songs align most closely with those of folk-pop maestros James Taylor, Stephen Stills and, as a more modern example, Bright Eyes. All of these artists lead with melody, harness the sweetness of radio-friendly pop and then backtrack towards the sonic trappings of traditional folk and country — qualities that have made Iron & Wine a fave with music supervisors who have placed its music in such series as “90210” and the movie “Twilight.” In the live setting, Iron & Wine reveals itself more clearly as an unabashed adherent of modern pop music, at times touching on the broad-sounding excursions of jam-band stalwarts the Dave Matthews Band.
Early in the set, Beam framed his songs with a sparse lineup of backing vocalists, banjo and mandolin. Older material, including “He Lays in Reins,” and crowd-favorite “Naked As We Came,” was performed with emotional intensity, but established an atmospheric drowsiness that lingered throughout the evening.
Later in the set Beam was joined by a full ensemble, which included trumpets, saxophones, percussion and synthesizers. The group added a newfound sense of rhythm to the music, a sort of plastic funk, which leaned heavily on the songs from Iron & Wine’s recently released album, “Kiss Each Other Clean.” “Tree By The River,” a strutting rocker in the vein of Elton John’s early output, best captured this new foray into blue-eyed soul with crisp melodic interplay and a propulsive drum beat.
As the night progressed, Beam’s easygoing banter and personable approach consistently disarmed the crowd and allowed for a charmingly unpretentious aura to permeate the concert hall. He is a performer clearly reveling in the shared experience of live music and his audience is grateful for his affability and humble demeanor.
Openers the Low Anthem performed a wonderful blend of Americana-infused rock music that sensitively conveyed emotion without sacrificing passion or charm. “Coal Mountain Lullaby,” the band’s closing song, was a quiet stunner arranged with clarinets and a droning organ — it blended the starkness of Springsteen’s “Nebraska” with the orchestral strains of Whiskeytown’s “Pneumonia.”