Ambling onto the Avalon stage in a plain white shirt and black pants, his face covered by a full beard, Sam Beam, the singer-songwriter who performs under the name Iron and Wine, could be a backwoods preacher, the type of guy who brings the chill of a Nor’easter into any room he enters. The first words he sings are “Papa died Sunday.” By the end of the song, “Sodom, South Georgia,” you realize that in Beam’s world, things are bleak but not hopeless: His “lady Edith” was born on the same day, and the song ends with a refrain of “God is good.”
The rest of his hourlong perf followed a similar pattern. Beam was a cinematographer before he turned to music, and his vocals and arrangements drape the songs in a stark wintry light, all dusky whites and grays. But he’s able to cover more territory than you might expect. Surreal parables (“Jesus the Mexican Boy”), disquieting love songs (“Lion’s Mane”) and rusty barb-wire blues (“Free Until They Cut Me Down,” a victim’s eye view of a lynching) are all sung in a coarse whisper over Beam’s angular finger-picking. “Woman King,” the title track from his upcoming Sub Pop EP, has the incantatory fire of Nick Drake standing at the crossroads. A cover of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes” comes out of left field and works; an ominous take on Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” lacks the original’s caustic dread.
While the music can seem frosty — Beam plays the songs with little comment — the emotions run deep. “May my love reach you all” is the chorus of the evening’s final song. Judging from the aud’s hushed response, it did.