Iron & Wine’s Great Gift

Sam Beard may have the most pleasant voice in contemporary music, and with his sister’s harmonies adhering to it like a remora on some sleek shark, it falls from the surface to murky depths with unerring certainty.  Iron & Wine may be as descriptive a name for the actual music created as any band since, well, how about The Clash?  

Last year’s The Shepherd’s Dog made Tulip Frenzy’s Top 10 list, and it was a genuinely great album, some weird amalgam of Whiskeytown and Simon & Garfunkel, with hints of Alejandro Escovedo’s chamber pop and Steve Reich’s gamelan minimalism.  What brought me to listen to them intensively in recent weeks has been my fixation with all things Calexico, triggered by their soaring new album, Carried To Dust.  It sent me back to the collaboration between Beard and Calexico, the magnificent In the Reigns EP from 2005.  And as often happens, when I began to pull on the fishing line, great things arose from the depths, in this case the discovery that Beard has enabled us to purchase first-rate MP3s of Iron & Wine’s live sets over the past few years.

A link from ironandwine.com takes one to playedlastnight.com.  Wise is the reader who goes to it and downloads the show Iron & Wine played in Edinburgh last October 29th.  (October 29th is a date that has peculiar resonance for us Americans right about now…)  Why pick that set?  Well, they helpfully feature it, and brother, we can see why.

I’ve never seen the band, and would have figured its live sets to be comprised of delicate, folky acoustic guitar and the singer/songwriter with maybe his sister on vocals.  From the sounds of it, the touring band Beard fielded a year ago — don’t know who’s on their current tour — was as complete as Alejandro’s big band — pedal steel, electric guitar, piano, bass and drums.  All that’s missing is the string section.  If you have loved the band’s three albums, you will find that great rarity: a live album that renders the familiar songs fresh and more memorable than what was captured in the studio.

A few years ago, Pearl Jam started the practice of beating the boots at their own game by releasing every show as a near instantaneously released live album.  It’s an act of generosity and wisdom to do so.  It’s an interesting choice for a band like Iron & Wine to follow suit.  I’m glad they did, and if you download the Edinburgh show, you will be too.  

Last point: if you have not bought any of the band’s studio albums, you’d be well served to start here.  It’s that good.

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