If you go
What: Iron and Wine, in concert.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9. Opening acts begin at 5 p.m.
Where: Pioneer Courthouse Square, Southwest Morrison and Broadway streets, Portland.
Cost: $32 through TicketsWest, 800-992-8499 or http://ticketswest.com.
Information: Part of MusicfestNW, http://musicfestnw.com.
It’s ironic to think that one of the largest bands going on the road this fall will be Iron & Wine.
The group began a decade ago when Sam Beam made stripped-back, nearly solo acoustic albums. Beam is still the songwriter and voice of Iron & Wine, but he has a lot company on stage these days — nearly a dozen musicians in all, with a horn section and backing vocalists added to a six-piece band.
“It gets to be a big handful of people. But I think it’s fun,” Beam said in a recent phone interview. “I do a lot of solo shows, and I enjoy that, too. But it’s a lot more fun to play with other people. Also, I think it gives you more options when you’re on the stage. You can have everyone stop playing and do a solo song, but then when you want to do a large arrangement, they (the musicians) are there.”
As Beam’s comments suggest, the Iron & Wine big band of 2011 is a direct reflection of the path his music has taken over the course of four studio albums.
After a pair of low-key largely solo albums — the 2002 Iron & Wine debut, “The Creek Drank the Cradle” and 2004’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” — Beam’s approach began to expand when he teamed up with Calexico to make the 2005 EP “In the Reins,” on which Calexico applied its varied instrumentation and mix of Southwestern rock, Mexican music and jazz to Beam’s songs.
With his 2007 Iron & Wine CD “The Shepherd’s Dog,” Beam began to add instruments and expand his arrangements. He’s taken that approach further on his latest album, “Kiss Each Other Clean.” Still, Beam is judicious enough with the instrumentation that many of the new tunes still connect back to the spare settings of the first two Iron & Wine records.
For instance, the new song “Walking Far From Home” has plenty going on, from the eerie undercurrent created with its electronic-type hum and deliberate bass line, to ever-building harmonies, percussion and piano. But there is enough separation between instruments and enough intimacy to make it easy to imagine the song as a solo. The same goes for “Rabbit Will Run,” which has all sorts of instrumental bells and whistles added to the world-beat rhythms that form the foundation of the song.
The bigger twists on “Kiss Each Other Clean” come on songs such as “Tree by the River” and “Half Moon,” which take things in more of a pop direction with their easy-going vocal melodies, harmonies and bright vibes, or on “Big Burned Hand,” which has a Steely Dan-ish quality in its wacky saxophone line.
“Definitely, there’s a bit more of an R&B quality to this one, especially with the horn section and the way the vocal arrangements are approached,” Beam said. “Rather than just straight vocal harmonies, like a circle of people singing, this is more like a vocal group.”
Taken together, the four Iron & Wine albums have earned Beam a place as one of rock’s most idiosyncratic songwriters. He often writes story-telling songs full of clever wordplay, intriguing and vivid imagery and plenty of room for interpretation as to what the words mean.
For a guy who obviously possesses his share of musical gifts, Beam was something of a late-comer to music. Now 36, he had an established career teaching college cinematography in Miami and was also working as a filmmaker. Writing music and making demos was merely a part-time hobby when his career took a turn in 2000.
That’s when some recordings he had sent out caught the attention of Sub Pop Records. The label approached him about making a CD, but Beam, who now has five daughters, had to weigh his family obligations and his career in film when deciding whether to take on life as a touring recording artist.
“Like anybody else who makes music, it was a dream … to be able to make living out of playing music,” Beam said. “But the reality of building a career over time and what that would mean was a lot different than a dream. And I’d already had children at the time, so my responsibilities were a little bit different than if (Sub Pop) had called me when I was 17 and said ‘Do you want to make records?’ I would have said, ‘Hell yes.’
“I still said, ‘Hell yes,’ but just slightly more under my breath, with hesitation,” he said. “At the end of the day, it just seemed like too good of a thing to pass up.”
Film’s loss has been music’s gain.