Midland crowd gets heady dose of Iron and Wine’s ever-changing styles

11/10/2013 9:35 AM

11/10/2013 9:51 AM

Over the course of 11 years and five studio album, Sam Beam has been consistent about one thing: his need to evolve and change.

Saturday night before a large, friendly crowd inside the Midland theater, the singer/songwriter who goes by the name Iron and Wine spent two hours plumbing a catalog of songs that showcases his gifts for poetry, storytelling and songcraft, songs that can be as skeletal and austere as they can be grand and cinematic.

For much of the night, he was backed by a 12-piece ensemble that comprised three string players, three background vocalists, a three-piece horn/reed section, a rhythm section and a keyboardist. They were put to full use throughout the evening, starting with the opener, “The Desert Babbler,” the wistful but bubbly track that opens his latest album, “Ghost on Ghost,” and including older tracks, like “Passing Afternoon,” from “Our Endless Numbered Days,” now nearly 10 years old.

For the most part, the band was employed adroitly, adding heft to some songs and uptown shine to others, as in the funky, soulful rendition of “Belated Promise Ring.” But there were moments when the arrangements came close to overtaking a song and Beam’s genteel voice (which can bear a strong resemblance to Don McLean’s).

For several songs in the middle of the show, the band took a break and turned the stage over to Beam and his guitars and songs like “Upward Over the Mountain,” a track from his debut album, “The Creek Drank the Cradle” -- a recording beloved for its stripped-down, low-tempo vibe -- “Woman King,” which had a Fairport Convention vibe, and “Sodom, South Georgia,” one of several songs that prompted immediate cheers of recognition from an audience that was attentive and respectful throughout the set. Another of the many highlights: his cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” for which he was joined by his string players and his keyboardist on accordion.

He unleashed the band on an instrumental jag during “Caught in the Briars/Sundown,” then brought it back for sounds more refined on “Grace For Saints and Ramblers” and “Lean Into the Light,” his homage to Motown that felt a little too polished. As he ended, he thanked his crowd copiously for all its enthusiasm and rewarded it with two gems: “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” and then “Your Fake Name is Good Enough for Me,” which ended with a full-band, “Hey, Jude” kind of fanfare.

The crowd coaxed him back on stage for one more, the lovely hymn “Naked As We Came,” which he delivered solo-acoustic, just him, his guitar, his words and a pretty melody. Sometimes, that’s all a song needs.

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