Listening to his music, one can totally get that Sam Beam, the man behind Iron & Wine, used to be a film studies professor. He understands the power of an image, and nearly every one of his songs evokes a specific mood and picture. Saturday night at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, Beam proved himself to be a master storyteller in person as well, if not in crowd interaction — “I should probably come up with some anecdotes,” he mused during a section of dead air — then certainly in song.
Iron & Wine’s latest record, Kiss Each Other Clean, has a distinctly more pop-centered approach than his previous albums, but it certainly retains some of the earthy, folky sound Beam has cultivated. But with a full band, Iron & Wine becomes another beast altogether.
Backed by a six-piece band plus backup singers (including opener and The Swell Season member Markéta Irglová), Beam went about appreciably reinterpreting large sections of his discography, giving tightly wound songs room to breathe. At times, Beam was like the frontman of a jaunty family band; other times he directed proceedings on long, jam-band-like interludes, often including saxophone (which does show up on Kiss Each Other Clean) from a band member who practically handled the entire woodwind section on his own during the show.
The effect was often thrilling and expanded the scope of Beam’s musical landscapes without diluting their thematic power. “Free Until They Cut Me Down,” from 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, was one song to receive a significant reworking, but its haunting, gothic overtones remained unmistakable, accentuated by Beam’s breathy rendering of refrain “She’s the one who begged me / Take me home.”
Combined with Irglová’s opening, sweet keyboard-based set that featured her branching out into solo songwriting with tunes from a forthcoming album, Saturday’s show was a striking night of musical reinvention and made this writer eager to hear Beam craft some aural images live again.