Iron and Wine/Calexico, Webster Hall, NYC- 12/5
NYC ROLL-TOP: Waking the Baby
The kid came up to me during the opening set by black bluegrass trio the Ebony Hillbillies and took the earbuds out of his ears. "Is this Calexico?" he asked.
"Nope," I said.
"Oh," he replied, put his earbuds back in, pulled a hood over his head, and watched the band. When the songs ended, he'd clap once or twice, and then go back to his music. The Hillbillies played gutbucket mountain songs, banjo frailed instead of speedily picked, a dulcimer occasionally haunting the arrangements.
The kid took his earbuds out again. "How long until Iron and Wine?"
"A while. What are you listening to?"
"Elliot Smith." He glanced at the stage and back at me. "I only want to hear Iron and Wine. I know it's wrong, but I just can't…" He shrugged and put the earbuds back in. ("He's listening to Elliot Smith? That's so creepy!" my friend whispered.)
He took them out when Calexico came on, though. "I'll take them out for these guys," he said to me, and that made sense. After all, the Arizona spaghetti western/indie folk mainstays recently recorded an EP backing Sam Beam, the Florida film professor known as Iron and Wine. During their opening set, their music was rarely as effective as it should have been. A band could hardly assemble a more expressive palette: vibraphone, pedal steel, trumpets, nylon-string guitar, and — when joined by former Tin Hat Trio multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger — accordion. But, give or take awesome dramatic moments when the mariachi horns kicked in, the set — backed with stark black and white film footage of mostly, um, horses — failed to take hold (though was certainly gorgeous to listen to).
Calexico ceded the stage to Flamenco guitarist Salvador Duran (a musician from their native Tucson), who'd joined them for their last song, playing while stomping atop a wooden box, and who — in turn — delivered a charming set. The kid kept the earbuds out for transplanted Brooklynite and indie Christian heartthrob Sufjan Stevens, too, who showed up to play a surprise two song set. Opening with the transcendent "Casimir Pulaski Day" from the recent Illinoise, Stevens then debuted "The Great God Bird," composed for National Public Radio over the summer, with Calexico’s Joey Burns and Martin Wenk assisting.
When Beam arrived, the crowd went still. His face hid behind the type of long beard that ripples when its wearer smiles, as Beam did when the crowd cheered reverently at the first notes of the opening "Cinder and Smoke." Augmented by Burger, whose accordion added a sheen of French moonlight to the song, the number took on a new melancholy. Over the next hour, Beam's band expanded and contracted, as they faced down the challenge of how to reset the extremely intimate music of Beam's two Sub Pop full-lengths into the ornate expanse of Webster Hall.
The attempted solutions were many. A lap steel swirled through "Southern Anthem." Calexico pedal steel guitarist Paul Niehaus returned, gliding above a xylophone. The ensemble swelled up (the Stop Making Sense effect, a friend noted, citing David Byrne’s masterpiece of rock staging), and down (the Start Making Sense effect?), and up again. The stronger the backbeat, generally, and the more prominent the electric guitar, the less unique Beam’s songs sounded, but some experiments were glorious. By the time the whole of Calexico arrived to give a double-time, two drummer treatment to "The Angry Blade," off Beam’s 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle, the musicians — by then, 13 of them — found a consistent groove.
Beam and Calexico played most of In the Reins — Beam’s second EP-length collaboration of 2005 — and quite well by one another. Locking into a xylophone/vibraphone groove, they gave the Technicolor treatment to the Velvet Underground’s "All Tomorrow’s Parties" (while a trumpet sealed the deal). Burger returned for "Prison on Route 41" while super-8 footage of a desert family vacation flickered, and Duran came back to bellow during "He Lays in the Reins" (as he did on the original recording). By the end of the night, it was obvious that Beam — who could’ve milked his effortlessly autumnal sound for a career of whispered tea-drenched coziness — has turned into one of indie rock’s most surprising bandleaders. He is far more than a one-trick beard.
Jesse Jarnow lives in Brooklyn and blogs at wunderkammern27.com